Should Hitting A Police Officer Be A Serious Crime?

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By Colin A. Young

BOSTON — The Massachusetts secretary of public safety renewed the Baker administration’s effort to increase the penalty for assaulting a police officer, pressing lawmakers on Tuesday to elevate the crime to a felony charge.

Governor Charlie Baker has filed a bill (H 3539) that would make assault of a police officer a felony rather than a misdemeanor offense, require judges to sentence someone found guilty of causing “serious bodily injury to a police officer” to at least one year in prison, and allow judges to consider whether a defendant in such a case should be held while the defendant awaits trial.

“This bill … is a recognition that police officers have become a target, a target for those people in society that are taking out on police officers the frustration that they feel against what has gone wrong for them,” Secretary of Public Safety and Security Daniel Bennett told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Under current law, the maximum sentence for someone convicted of assaulting a police officer and causing serious bodily harm is two and a half years, according to the governor’s office. Baker’s bill would increase the maximum penalty to 10 years in state prison.

In cases where a suspect causes serious bodily harm to an officer, judges, under the bill, would be prohibited from continuing the case without a finding, placing the suspect on probation, or giving a suspended sentence. The judge would be required to sentence the defendant to at least one year in prison.

Baker also filed his bill last session, in July 2016, but the Judiciary Committee effectively spiked it by including it in a study order last October.

The committee also accepted testimony Tuesday on bills filed by Representative Paul Frost, Senator Michael Moore, Representative Edward Coppinger, Senator Richard Ross, and Representative William Crocker that would also increase penalties for certain crimes against police officers.

Baker’s bill, the governor has previously said, was inspired by a preliminary review of court decisions involving Jorge Zambrano, the man authorities say shot and killed Auburn Police Officer Ronald Tarentino during a traffic stop in May 2016. Tarentino’s father and sister were present Tuesday with Representative Frost to support his and Senator Moore’s bill (H 3053/S 918).

Frost read from a statement written by Auburn Police Chief Andrew Sluckis Jr., who could not attend Tuesday’s hearing at the State House.

“The time has come for citizens and the media to realize that police officers are people too. Contrary to some public belief, we do not get paid to get punched, kicked, and assaulted,” Frost read from Sluckis’s statement. “We get paid to protect life, property and to enforce the laws of this commonwealth. All we want to do at the end of the day is to go home to our families, nothing more.”

Frost told the committee that he is willing to work with them, the governor’s office, and anyone else to craft a bill the committee and Legislature could support.

“The passage of this bill would go a long way towards making [Tarentino’s] death stand for something,” Frost said. “I ask the members of this committee to just don’t bury this bill. Please report something out … whether it’s a hybrid version of this bill, whether it’s our bill, the governor’s bill, or someone else’s bill, I think something needs to be done.”

Opposition to similar bills filed by Baker and lawmakers last session came from civil liberties organizations, which implored the Judiciary Committee to put on the brakes. The groups had concerns that the bill could lead to suppression of protests and give law enforcement more leverage over accused individuals in court.

“It’s been said, ‘Well this is just going to be used for the police to take bumps and pushes and protect themselves in that way,'” Bennett said. “Well, that’s not what’s going to happen. You have to have an injury that is to the point of maiming or putting someone’s life at risk before you could charge under this bill … it’s going to be used only as a shield and not as a sword by police officers.”

Frost also dismissed concerns that his bill or the governor’s would expand the powers of the police. “No, it won’t,” he said.

Massachusetts state Representative Paul Frost, who represents Auburn where police officer Ronald Tarentino was shot and killed during a traffic stop in 2016, testified before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday alongside Tarentino family members. [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS]