Hoping to discourage potential violent rioters — such as those who took to the streets in Baltimore in April — Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco is cosponsoring a bipartisan bill that would toughen and clarify penalties for those who interfere with or harm law-enforcement officers and other emergency responders when they are on the job.
Bucco is the deputy Assembly Republican leader in Trenton.
“The public is guaranteed the right to peaceful protest by our Constitution, but what happened in Baltimore was a complete breakdown of law and order,” said Bucco, (R-Randolph). “Out-of-control rioters created a dangerous situation and we were lucky no lives were lost.”
Bucco told the Daily Record Monday that while laws exist to protect emergency responders, his bill clarifies the definition of law-enforcement officers listed in the current laws to include sheriff’s officers, detectives from the prosecutor’s office and other official law-enforcement personnel.
It provides similar clarification that the existing laws also apply to emergency responders including firefighters and medical personnel.
“The laws exist, but I didn’t want to run the risk (that those laws would not protect all responders),” he said.
The bill, listed as A-4566, also makes it a crime to misuse emergency equipment, or to damage that equipment.
“Rocks and bricks rained down from rooftops, injuring first responders and damaging equipment,” Bucco said. “Vandals ripped into a fire hose with a knife to stop the water needed to extinguish the fires that had been started. Under my bill, we will not tolerate these reckless, irresponsible and dangerous actions, and the penalties will be severe.”
Bucco was referring to the civil unrest seen in Baltimore in April following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man who died a week after sustaining injuries in police custody following his April 12 arrest accusing him of possession of an illegal switchblade.
Protestors hit the streets of Baltimore after Gray fell into a coma on April 18, dying the next day, and protests escalated with violence, looting and fires, and more than 500 law-enforcement officers were injured, according to USA Today.
Gray’s death was ruled to be a homicide and legal charges were issued against the six officers involved in the incident, including that of second-degree murder.
Firefighters and other unarmed emergency responders also were put in harm’s way, Bucco said.
The bill would either establish or clarify the following:
•A third-degree crime for interfering or obstructing a public safety employee with the intent to injure, or damaging or impairing emergency equipment for the purpose of causing injury. The offense rises to second degree is it results in serious injury.
•A fourth-degree crime for interfering or obstructing a public safety employee or damaging or impairing emergency equipment. If the offense causes injury, it increases to third degree.
•A fourth-degree crime for the unlawful control of equipment in possession of a law enforcement officer, increasing to third degree if there are threats to use the equipment as a weapon against the officer.
•A fourth-degree crime for the unlawful control of equipment in possession of emergency service personnel. The offense is increased to third degree if there are threats to use the equipment as a weapon.
A crime of the second degree is punishable by 5 to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $150,000. A third-degree offense is punishable by 3 to 5 years behind bars, and a $15,000 fine. A crime of the fourth-degree can mean up to 18 months in prison, and a fine of $10,000.
“To protect the public from similar turmoil, my measure provides safeguards so that police, firefighters and EMS personnel can perform their jobs safely,” Bucco said.
The bill was introduced on June 15 and has been referred to the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. It has not yet been listed on the committee agenda, but likely will be considered when the legislature reconvenes for its fall session, Bucco said.