Police officers and elected officials from across the state gathered in Annapolis yesterday to raise awareness of a new state law that makes it a felony to assault a police officer.
Law enforcement unions and others had fought for years for the law, which takes effect Saturday. "Police deal with bad people and they protect our community," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "We want to support you and your efforts."
O'Brien Atkinson, president of Anne Arundel County's police union, said the change was overdue. "Once a upon a time, if you assaulted a police officer you ended up in Shock Trauma - but that is not the case anymore." Atkinson said. "Police officers are held to a higher standard today, and they should be, but that deterrent [preventing people from attacking them] is not there."
According to the FBI, 3,554 police officers were assaulted in Maryland in 2003. Forty-three other states have separate laws on the books for assaulting police officers, said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat who pushed for passage of the law for three years.
"It is a felony to kick a police dog, so it should also be a felony to assault a police officer," Quinter said.
Convicted felons cannot vote or carry a handgun, are ineligible for some jobs including work with fiduciary responsibility, and a felonious record can automatically lead to stiffer sentences for subsequent crimes, said Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.
The new law only applies to situations when an officer is physically injured while performing law-enforcement duties. Physical injury is defined in the bill to mean "impairment of physical condition, excluding minor injuries."
Those convicted under the new law will face up to 10 years in prison and a possible $5,000 fine.
But some doubted the usefulness of the new law. "It is window dressing," said John Robinson, an area defense attorney. "You've got laws on the books that are sufficient to protect police officers."
He also noted that under existing law, a conviction for felony first-degree assault charge carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. Second-degree assault is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Robinson doubted that a person riled up enough to strike a police officer would make the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanor.
"It is police who are on the front lines in a community," said Anne Arundel County Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan. "It's saying that it is a major crime to attack that force that is protecting your community."