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Spirited Debate On Beacon Hill Over Bills To Increase Penalty For Assault On Police03:47
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Both the House and Senate passed the compromise pay equity bill unanimously. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Both the House and Senate passed the compromise pay equity bill unanimously. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 5 years old.

A committee heard spirited testimony on Beacon Hill Wednesday morning for and against a pair of bills seeking to make the crime of assault and battery on a police officer a felony, with a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison.

The hearing comes amid calls for increased police safety, as well as concern the proposed law might be used to suppress the viewpoints of protesters.

The bills, including one offered by Gov. Charlie Baker, were filed following the shooting death of Auburn Officer Ronald Tarentino this past spring. A review of court records found the man who killed him, Jorge Zambrano, had numerous, violent run-ins with police, and was free, despite having recently been charged with assault on a police officer, which is currently a misdemeanor. Zambrano was killed in a shootout with state police troopers several hours after Tarentino was killed.

Dan Bennett, public safety secretary, urged the Legislature's judiciary committee to approve the bill in order to protect police officers.

"When they take a moral obligation, and they say 'I'm going to enter into those dangerous situations,' then we as a society, have an obligation to protect them," Bennett said. "And they do deserve a special protection. And that's what, when the governor asks you to consider this bill, I think that's what he's asking: 'Give them an extra protection that allows them to do their job with safety,' " he added.

Also speaking in favor of the bill was Brewster state Rep. Tim Whelan, who served as a state police trooper and correctional officer before being elected to the Legislature. Whelan said that while in law enforcement, he was battered several times while on the job.

"Police officers right now, and have for years, suffered way too much violence in the workplace. Nobody in their right mind would ever suffer an unsafe or a violent workplace for any of our public employees," Whelan said. "Police officers suffer violence in the workplace on a regular basis. We need to show these officers that they will have the law behind them, and that this law will provide an adequate deterrent to protect their safety and the financial security of their families," he added.

But opponents of the bills, including Alex Marthews of the group Digital 4th, say that while they deplore violence against police officers, charges of assault on a police officer are often used to disperse a crowd of protesters.

"There have been a number of cases that we have encountered where protesters have been charged with assault for involuntary contact with police officers that has not resulted in any injury, and where those charges have been dropped, after a deal of legal trouble, but before they got to trial," Marthews said.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts said the Legislature should hold off action on these bills.

"We need to be mindful and cautious given the national dialogue and the conversation that we are having, that we do not have a knee jerk reaction to some of the horrific things that we have seen, that have taken place," Hall said. "Some of the violence that has been perpetrated against law enforcement is in the context of a long history this nation has with police, and the experiences that, particularly people of color have had in this country at the hands of police."

These are not the only bills filed aimed at protecting police officers. Earlier this week, a bill was submitted making police officers a protected class under the state's hate crimes law.

With the number of days left in this legislative session dwindling, passage of the bills this year is uncertain. Supporters are likely to file them again in the new session, beginning next year.

This segment aired on July 13, 2016.

Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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