Police say assault measure is needed

They ask Senate to make attack on officer a felony

House has passed bill

Anne Arundel

March 14, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

A 54-second arrest attempt ended Kathleen Irwin's 11-year-career as a Baltimore police officer and left her bedridden and in a full-body brace for months.

The drunken man who shoved her into a metal shelving unit, rupturing a disk in her lower back, was charged with a misdemeanor and sentenced to 18 months of unsupervised probation.

This legislative session, police officers have stepped up their efforts for passage of a bill that would make assaulting an officer a felony. After four consecutive years of failure, the bill has made it farther than ever this year.

"It is my belief that if I were able to charge this suspect as a felon, he would have gotten a more appropriate penalty," Irwin told state senators this week at a hearing of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The House version of the bill passed 134-0 last week, and its Senate twin has 22 co-sponsors. If it makes it out of committee, the bill needs a simple majority of 24 votes in the Senate to head to the governor's desk.

"This will give police officers one more weapon in their arsenal," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police.

"A lot of seriousness goes along with being a convicted felon, and criminals know that."

Maryland ranks fourth in the nation for assaults on law enforcement officers, with about 29 out of 100 officers assaulted in the line of duty each year.

Of the 3,947 officers assaulted in 2001, 572 were seriously injured, according to the latest Uniform Crime Report available.

Officers say the current felony assault law, which requires intent, does not work for them because their injuries e more often result from someone struggling to escape custody than from someone deliberately trying to hurt them.

Animal cruelty laws make it an automatic felony to assault a police dog, something law enforcement officers repeatedly pointed out at Tuesday's hearing.

`Worthy of no less'

"Surely, the men and women who protect you are worthy of no less consideration," Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV said during the hearing.

Anne Arundel County law enforcement agencies and unions, who work closest to the state capital, have campaigned hard for the bill, showing up in droves each time there is action on it.

Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican, introduced the bill in January. She said a heavily amended version of her bill addresses the concerns of some of her fellow legislators that every scuffle with police might qualify as a felony assault. The bill excludes "minor, temporary injuries."

Greenip began pushing for the bill last year as a delegate. When it failed to make it out of committee, she brought it to the floor as an amendment to a crime bill.

"People are finally waking up to the fact that we need these policemen, and we need to protect them in any way that we can," Greenip said.

Staunch opposition

The bill's staunchest opponents have been defense attorneys, who say putting law enforcement officers into a special category could drive a wedge between police officers and the communities they serve.

Testifying against the bill Tuesday, Stanley D. Janor, a public defender in Baltimore, said it is "against public policy, disproportionate and unnecessary."

Prosecutors split on the bill.

Douglas F. Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney, spoke in favor of the bill. William M. Katcef, an Anne Arundel prosecutor who tracks legislation for the Maryland State's Attorney's Association, criticized it.

"The committee better look long and hard before it passes this bill," he said. Among his objections, he said, is a fear that bumping into a police officer could be categorized as a felony. Greenip said her bill makes it clear that such minor incidents would not qualify.

Katcef favored a measure introduced by Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, that instead of creating a separate assault category for law enforcement officers would add five years to first- and second-degree assault sentences when the person assaulted is an officer.

Katcef said the Maryland State's Attorney's Association endorses Giannetti's bill.

Most law enforcement professionals at the hearing did not endorse Giannetti's bill, saying their fight to make assaulting an officer a more serious crime is aimed more at prevention than at increasing sentences.

"When someone is disorderly, we want to be able to look at them and say, `You assault me, it's a felony,'" Atkinson said.

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