A Republican lawmaker wants to make it a felony to intimidate police, firefighters or other first responders because they are members of the law enforcement community, which critics say is an attempt to criminalize protests against police violence like those seen across Arizona last summer.

“This bill is another example of the extreme backlash facing Black and brown communities who are organizing against police violence,” said Ben Laughlin, policy coordinator for Poder in Action, in a statement. “As was made clear this summer, there is an ongoing effort by elected officials, local police, and county attorneys to target, criminalize, and incarcerate Black leaders fighting for justice.” 

Senate Bill 1125, introduced by Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, would create a new felony in Arizona called “bias-motivated intimidation of first responders.” Anyone who “maliciously and intentionally” intimidates, harasses or terrorizes someone because they are a member of a police or fire department, an emergency medical technician or paramedic could be charged with a class 4 felony and face up to 45 months in prison. The intimidation has to result in the death or serious injury of another person or if property worth more than $500 is damaged. 

Gowan didn’t return requests for comment, and his office said he would not speak to the media.

Poder in Action, a community group that pushes for more oversight and accountability of local police departments and often advocates for the families of people who have died at the hands of law enforcement, helped organize different demonstrations last year. 

Over the summer and fall, police often confronted activists and demonstrators when officers used traffic laws to order dispersals of protests, in what police said is an attempt to clear traffic lanes but organizers said was a pretext to arrest and charge demonstrators with felonies. Local organizers claimed police and prosecutors were overcharging demonstrators as a way to silence their voices. 

‘They want to ruin us’: Activists say police, prosecutors use targeted arrests to chill protests

Darrell Hill, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said SB1125 aims to criminalize people who have been part of these marches calling for change.

“This misguided bill is nothing more than an attempt to silence and criminalize those who practice their First Amendment right to protest against police misconduct and abuse,” Hill said in a statement. “Punishing people for their perceived views on police officers or any other group raises serious First Amendment concerns. We should not use our criminal laws to punish those with which we disagree. This bill, if passed, will chill constitutionally protected speech.” 

Protections against police are already in place

Britt London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said the police union wasn’t consulted on SB1125, but he welcomed more protections for law enforcement.

“I guess an added protection is always good,” he said.

Police who are assaulted, which in Arizona law can mean “knowingly touching another person with the intent to injure, insult or provoke such person,” already have unique protections in state law. And police departments often use aggravated assault laws, especially in scenarios when they said someone is resisting arrest, which is also a felony.

According to Arizona law, using a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument to assault police or causing physical injury to an officer is a class 2 felony with a sentence of 10.5 years in prison. That sentence cannot be suspended, commuted and there is no basis for early release terms. Committing assault against a person who is a police officer is a class 5 felony, unless the assault results in any physical injury to the peace officer, in which case it is a class 4 felony.

London said he wasn’t sure whether existing laws have done enough to help prosecute people who commit crimes against police. But he said he trusts the current criminal justice system to hold those that do accountable.

“Those people that do commit crimes against police, they are arrested, and we trust in the judicial process,” London said. “If there’s a crime against an officer, and that person is arrested, we hope that justice is served through the existing process.”

In contrast, families of people killed at the hands of law enforcement and groups that advocate for more accountability on deadly police encounters have for years said that prosecutors don’t do enough. 

“When police kill, there is rarely any sense of justice or accountability for the person’s family, let alone a special set of laws furthering criminalizing the officer,” said Laughlin of Poder in Action. 

SB1125 mirrors controversial Georgia law

Gowan’s proposal mirrors a controversial measure out of Georgia that was signed into law last year and became effective in January. That law, however, also includes a provision that allows police to sue people who file false complaints against them or infringe on their civil rights, according to the Georgia Recorder.

Groups in that state, including the ACLU and NAACP, called the law politically motivated and one that takes “a direct swipe” at state residents “participating in the Black Lives Matter protests who were asserting their constitutional rights,” the Georgia Recorder reported.