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Civil rights advocates slam Baker bill

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Civil rights advocates slam Baker bill
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (Photo: Joanne DeCaro)

In the wake of the shooting death of Auburn police officer Ronald Tarantino, Gov. Charlie Baker is advancing legislation that would elevate the charge of assault and battery on a police officer to a felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison.

“If someone hurts a police offi¬cer, we want to make sure they can be held accountable and that they can’t just walk out (of a courtroom),” Daniel Bennett, Baker’s top public safety offi¬cial, told the Boston Herald.

But civil rights activists say the move could tip an already skewed balance of power further in favor of police officers in cases where excessive force is used.

“There’s already a law that criminalizes felonious assaults,” said Rahsaan Hall, Director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “There’s no need to create new laws.”

Baker’s move comes as police departments and municipal governments across the country are grappling with charges of police misconduct, brutality and officer-involved shootings that have led to the Black Lives Matter movement and placed greater scrutiny on law enforcement.

Hall, a former Suffolk County prosecutor, said it’s common knowledge among prosecutors and defense attorneys that police officers often charge people with assault and battery on an officer when they themselves have used excessive force.

“There are countless people who face these charges,” he said.

Attorney Howard Friedman, who specializes in civil lawsuits on behalf of victims of police brutality, false arrest and wrongful death, said the charges are part of what lawyers call the “holy trinity” of cover charges — ploys police use to deflect from their own misconduct. “If someone is injured by police, you expect them to be charged with disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest,” he said. “It’s extremely common. In some police departments, if you want to find the most aggressive officers, you look for the ones who file the most assault and battery on a police officer charges.”

When suspects are arrested, police commonly charge them with a list of crimes, including disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. Prosecutors working for a district attorney then determine which charges they will seek convictions for, often dropping select charges in exchange for a guilty plea for a lesser charge. A suspect caught with a small quantity of opiates, for example, can be charged for possession with intent to distribute in a school zone — a charge that carries a mandatory sentence — but might plead guilty to simple possession. The plea deals allow prosecutors to rack up convictions without spending time and resources on trials.

Hall said elevating the charge to a felony would tip the balance against defendants in cases where police misconduct is alleged at a time when many in the state are pulling away from such sentencing guidelines.

“By making it a felony, it creates an opportunity for someone to be held without bail on a dangerousness hearing,” he said.

While Baker’s bill was ostensibly filed in reaction to Tarantino’s death, Hall questioned whether it would have prevented suspect Jorge Zambrano from allegedly shooting the officer.

“Had this bill been the law, there’s no guarantee it would have prevented what happened,” he said.