BOSTON — Lawmakers, the Baker administration and law enforcement officers on Wednesday urged a committee to advance legislation that would increase the penalties for some assaults against police officers before the July 31 end of formal sessions, but civil liberties organizations implored the committee to put the brakes on, citing concerns that the bills could lead to suppression of protests and give law enforcement more leverage over accused individuals in court.
The Joint Committee on the Judiciary heard testimony on two bills, including one (H 4440) filed by Gov. Charlie Baker that would elevate assault of a police officer from a misdemeanor offense to a felony and require judges to sentence someone found guilty of causing "serious bodily injury to a police officer" to at least one year in prison. The committee also considered a similar bill (H 4466) filed by Rep. Paul Frost and Sen. Michael Moore.
Baker previously said the bill 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.
Frost, who represents Auburn and lives on the street where Tarentino was shot and killed, said the bills are necessary to "protect the protectors."
"Violence on our police is escalating. There is a war on our police and I think we've got to do something about it," he said, noting that it makes no difference to him whether the committee supports his bill or the governor's. "Members of this committee can take that first step and help us get there."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said it was concerned that the recent killings of police officers in Auburn and Dallas, Texas, were unduly driving unnecessary new charges through the Legislature without enough vetting.
"There are adequate protections already. Certainly we do time and time again send our police officers, our women and men, into some of the most dangerous situations and expect them to deal with all manner of ills of society," Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts' racial justice program, said. "We need to be mindful and cautious, given the national dialogue and conversation, that we do not have a knee-jerk reaction to some of the horrific things we have seen."
Supporters of the bills, including Secretary of Public Safety Daniel Bennett, said the increased penalties are necessary to serve as a deterrent to criminals and to protect those whose job often puts them in harm's way.
"When you ask that of somebody, when they take a moral obligation and they say, 'I'm going to enter into those dangerous situations,' then we as a society, then the governor, and I would suggest the Legislature though it is in your hands, has an obligation to protect them and they do deserve a special protection," Bennett, a former prosecutor, said. "Give them an extra protection that allows them to do their job with safety."
The bill calls for a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in state prison or a county jail, and a maximum of 10 years in prison or two and a half years in jail. People convicted of a felony assault on a police officer would not be eligible for probation until they had served at least a year of their imprisonment.
A fine of between $500 and $10,000 could also be levied.
Digital Fourth, a Massachusetts-based civil liberties organization, said it has worked on a number of cases in which a protester is charged with assaulting a police officer for involuntary contact with an officer trying to break up a crowd. In many of those cases, charges were dropped after the accused agreed to a plea bargain.
"We are concerned that strengthening these penalties will increase the leverage of authorities in plea bargain situations and that will result in more instances of abusive suppression of protests going unpunished," Alex Marthews, director of Digital Fourth, said. "This seems to us to inhibit public assembly to petition for redress of grievances."
Bennett said he could understand Digital Fourth's concern, but said the increased penalties could not be used "as a sword" against an accused individual because the stiffer penalty would only kick in if the assault caused serious bodily harm to the officer.
"I think the fear on some people's part is that this will involve a shove, or a push, or that it will be used as a sword rather than a shield against the public by an overzealous prosecutor," the secretary said. "I've been a defense attorney and I've been a prosecutor and I understand why there's a fear of that. But there's a safeguard there, and that's 'serious bodily injury.'"
Rep. Tim Whelan, an officer with the Massachusetts State Police for 21 years before being elected to the House, said the issue is not only one of personal safety, but also one of financial security. When an officer is injured in the line of duty, they are paid only 72 percent of their salary and cannot work details or overtime to earn additional money, he said.