FRANKFORT – It could become a crime to taunt a police officer in Kentucky, under a bill that passed the state Senate on Thursday.
The measure was filed months after Louisville, the state's largest city, became the site of huge protests in the wake of the police killing of Breonna Taylor. The bill passed the Republican-dominated Senate 22-11 and now awaits House input.
Under the legislation, anyone who “accosts, insults, taunts, or challenges a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words, or by gestures or other physical contact, that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response” would be guilty of a misdemeanor and face up to 90 days in jail and fines.
The proposal also increases penalties for rioting. For instance, those charged with rioting would be required to be held for a minimum of 48 hours. Another provision would criminalize aiming “a light, a laser pointer, an activated horn or other noise-making device towards the head” of a first responder.
Several Republican senators who voted against the bill shared concerns that some parts of it would violate First Amendment rights and strain the judicial system. Nevertheless, they signaled support for the bill if some parts of it were amended in the House.
State Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said he filed the proposal in response to last summer's Louisville protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Demonstrations — some of which turned violent — were a frequent occurrence, as protesters called for charges to be brought against the officers involved in Taylor's death. Many gathered peacefully in Jefferson Square Park in downtown Louisville for weeks. Dubbed “Injustice Square” by protesters, it became an impromptu hub during months of demonstrations.
Taylor, a Black woman, was shot in her Louisville home multiple times by police during a botched drug raid. A grand jury indicted one officer on wanton endangerment charges in September for shooting into a neighbor’s apartment, but no officers were charged in connection with her death.
Police had a no-knock warrant but said they knocked and announced their presence before entering Taylor’s apartment, a claim some witnesses have disputed. No drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment.
Republicans hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate.
Democratic lawmakers warned that the proposal could be used to unfairly target peaceful protesters. State Sen. Gerald Neal, a Democrat who represents Louisville, called the legislation “unnecessary” and “unreasonable."
“This is a hammer on my district,” Neil said. “I personally resent it. This is beneath this body.”
Hudspeth Blackburn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.