Advocates continue push for assault-on-officer felony

Delegate hopes to reintroduce bill

March 28, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County law enforcement groups are staging a last-minute campaign to win passage of change in the state criminal code that would make assaulting an officer a felony in Maryland, calling legislators and sending e-mails on behalf of a measure that has failed in past years.

County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV and police officers, including officials from the county sergeants association, have long lobbied representatives for a felony assault bill. The proposal has been voted down in committee four years in a row, including this week.

That hasn't stopped the officers or - apparently- one of the bill's sponsors, Del. Janet Greenip, a Crofton Republican, who plans to reintroduce the measure today as an amendment to a crime bill.

"I think it's that important," said Greenip, who is among the officials angered that Maryland law makes it an automatic felony to deliberately harm a police dog, but not a police officer.

"When dogs are treated better in this state than humans, it just doesn't make sense," she said yesterday. "It's not right. Our police officers deserve better."

The proposed change would affect law enforcement officers across Maryland, where 3,630 officers were assaulted in 2000, a slight drop from the five-year annual average of 3,750, according to the state's uniform crime report.

Although statewide groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the Maryland Coalition of Police and Deputy Sheriffs also are lobbying for the change, much of the pressure is coming from Anne Arundel County.

Being close to the capital, the county officers are conveniently located to testify and lobby on behalf of officers around the state, Johnson said. And the county's sergeants association has made the felony assault proposal a priority, championing the bill each year.

"It's a battle every year," said Sgt. Bret Ballam, president of the Anne Arundel County Sergeant's Association and a longtime advocate of the felony assault bill. He has met repeatedly with politicians about the issue.

"We're just asking that you give us the same legal protection that you give any stray animal walking down the street," county Sgt. Bryan Heger testified before the House Judiciary Committee, which voted 11-7 Monday against the bill, even stripped of a mandatory one-year sentence.

At a hearing last week, several legislators questioned why officers were asking for a felony classification when state law defines serious assaults on any person as a felony.

Law enforcement officials noted that more than half of the states, including those surrounding Maryland, have laws that categorize any assault on an officer - regardless of the severity - as a felony.

"I just can't understand why Maryland [lawmakers] can't embrace it," Johnson said yesterday.

Johnson, also the legislative chairman for the state's association of sheriffs, said, "I think we have to send a message that if someone assaults an officer, they'll face the harshest of penalties."

Greenip said she's not sure which bill she'll propose to amend with the provision that assaulting an officer be categorized as a felony, but she said she plans to introduce the measure in session today.

Meanwhile, officers are seeking lawmakers' support.

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