Quinter seeks bill on assault on officers

Legislation would make offense a felony, separate from other assaults

`We have to have a deterrent'

Md. is fourth-worst state in attacks against police

numbers up in the county

Howard County

January 29, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

With violence against police on the rise in Howard County, a state delegate introduced a bill yesterday that would make assaulting an officer a felony punishable by a maximum of 15 years in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both.

"It's the fastest-growing crime in Howard County," said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat.

Quinter added that assaults against officers in the first six months of last year spiked to 67 - a 34 percent increase over the corresponding period in 2002.

Assaults against Howard officers have gradually increased - from 103 in 1999 to 110 in 2002, he said.

Statewide, assaults against police officers dropped from 3,154 in 2000 to 2,146 in 2001, according to FBI data. But assaults surged to 3,096 in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, the data showed.

The increase made Maryland the fourth-worst state in terms of assaults on police officers in 2002, behind Florida, California, and Texas - all states with significantly larger populations, the data showed.

"We have to have a deterrent," said Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay, who also heads the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and testified yesterday in favor of the bill in Annapolis.

Livesay said assaults on officers have a fiscal impact on local communities because taxpayers have to foot officers' medical bills. "Something has to make the assaults slow down or stop," he said.

The state figures mirror a slight nationwide increase in assaults on officers from 2001 to 2002. But the national statistics also reveal a long-term downward trend in the number of assaults against officers - an 8 percent decline from 1993 to 2002. The percentage of those injured also decreased over that period, the FBI data show.

Quinter, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said the need for a stiffer penalty has increased. The penalty now for assaulting an officer is "the same as assaulting any ordinary citizen," he said.

First-degree assault carries a 25-year maximum prison sentence, while second-degree assault carries a maximum 10-year penalty or a $2,500 fine, or both. The bill would make assaulting an officer a separate offense.

"There should be a separate charge for assaulting an officer because of the message it sends to criminals," he said.

Quinter said his legislation parallels a measure that Sen. John A. Gianetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, is spearheading. They announced the introduction of their bills at a news conference in Annapolis yesterday, with overwhelming support from law enforcement officials in the state.

"The police are getting punched around," James F. Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association. "We're like punching bags."

But there is some opposition. The state Office of the Public Defender opposes the tougher penalties, saying it would allow police officers to be treated as a special class of victims. An office representative testified against the bill yesterday, said Cynthia Boersma, counsel for government relations.

"We opposed the bills last year, and we're opposing them this year," Boersma said. "It seems like bad public policy, despite the very good intentions that are behind the bill."

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