OCEAN CITY — A bill in the General Assembly adding law enforcement officers to a protected class under hate crimes laws had its first committee hearing this week with stark contrast in attitudes about first responders on display.
During last fall’s pop-up rally in Ocean City, Delegate Wayne Hartman witnessed assaults and disrespectful acts toward police officers during a ride-along with resort police officers. Hartman introduced a bill that would protect police officers and other first responders under the state’s hate crimes statute.
The legislation, if passed by the General Assembly, would make certain crimes carried out against law enforcement officers and first-responders, such as many of the offenses seen during the September pop-up rally a hate crime with enhanced penalties. During the most egregious portion of the event, law enforcement officers and first-responders were pelted with rocks and bottles, had their vehicles and equipment damaged and skirmished with offenders.
Under House Bill 286 and Senate Bill 99, for an offense that qualified as a misdemeanor, the penalty could be three years, up to a $3,000 fine or both. If the offenses were considered elevated to felonies, there are two ranges of penalties in the proposed legislation. One class of hate crime would include up to 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine or both, while the most egregious hate crime defined in the legislation could result in a jail term up to 20 years or a $20,000 fine or both.
House Bill 286 had its first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and the testimony reflected divisive attitudes about law enforcement and other first responders.
“The purpose of this bill is to add first responders and law enforcement to a protected class under the current hate crimes legislation,” co-sponsor Hartman said. “It’s important to remember first responders cover a wide range of age, race, religion and ethnicity. This bill is aimed at protecting all of them because of the job they do.”
Hartman recounted some of the details from his two-day ride-along during the pop-up event in Ocean City.
“Multiple times even before law enforcement officers were engaged, they were met with things thrown at them, bottle rockets, fireworks being shot at them, glass being thrown,” he said. “It was a scene you never expect to see in that town.”
Hartman talked about the symbolism of a police badge and urged colleagues on the committee to advance the proposed legislation.
“The shield is a symbol not of authority, but to protect the individual,” he said. “Unfortunately, the shield is no longer big enough. At some point, we’re all going to need the assistance of a first responder. I’d like you to remember that when you think of the first responders that protect our communities.”
Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro testified in favor of the bill and spoke broadly about the recent changes in attitude toward law enforcement.
“Today, the job of a law enforcement officer, whether in Maryland or throughout the United States, is becoming increasingly difficult, challenging and dangerous,” he said. “While this phenomenon continues, the current protections afforded to police officers are becoming less effective and seen by many as a non-deterrent.”
Buzzuro said negative attitudes about law enforcement have spiked recently.
“Throughout my career, which is now in its fourth decade, I have never experienced a period in time when the sentiment towards our revered and noble profession was this negative,” he said. “The sentiment goes beyond policing philosophies and has increasingly moved directly towards police officers in general whether they are on or off-duty. In uniform or plain clothes.”
Buzzuro then presented some statistics about an increase in assaults against his charges in Ocean City in recent years. Despite being a relatively peaceful resort community, assaults against law enforcement officers has increased by 50% in recent years, from 74 in 2018 to 113 in 2019 and 165 in 2020.
“Recently, throughout the summer months of 2020, the Ocean City Police Department witnessed first-hand and fell victim to arguably the worst summer in the resort’s history as routine and ordinary interactions with citizens became hostile and at times violent with momentum that seemed to never waiver but continued to accelerate all summer long,” he said.
The OCPD chief also outlined some of the violence against law enforcement during the fall pop-up event.
“As we entered the fall of 2020, the town of Ocean City experienced the effects of an unwelcomed and unsanctioned event, known as the pop up rally bringing thousands upon thousands of visitors,” he said. “Over a period of several days we experienced a prolonged and virtual ongoing clash with visitors of this event. Although, we had planned ahead and had a large law enforcement presence to safeguard and protect our community, we became subjects to an unwavering onslaught of non-compliance, menacing and violent behavior.”
Buzzuro urged the committee to advance the legislation.
“This particular bill and its passage is extremely important and will serve as a vital safeguarding measure for first responders as they carry out their respective duties,” he said. “Furthermore, it will serve with a degree of confidence that any individual or individuals determined to cause harm to our first responders will face serious consequences for their actions.”
House Bill 286 was not without at least one detractor. Anti-Defamation League Senior Associate Regional Director Meredith Weisel testified against the proposed legislation on behalf of the organization.
“We strongly oppose this legislation,” she said. “We do not support adding any first responders or law enforcement officers to hate crimes laws. Adding law enforcement or any other vocation weakens the intent of hate crimes bills.”
Weisel said law enforcement officers and first responders were already protected under existing state laws.
“In Maryland, an assault against a police officer is a very serious crime already,” she said. “It comes with a much more severe penalty than an assault against a civilian. Bills like House Bill 286 have unintended consequences. Adding law enforcement and first responders to a protected class under hate crimes is unnecessary.”
Delegate Susan McComas (R-34B) said recent attacks against police officers represented a serious issue.
“They wear a uniform,” she said. “People are being shot because of what they’re wearing. It doesn’t matter if they are black or white or what their gender or religion is. Why do you oppose this so vehemently? This is a serious problem.”
Weisel explained the reasoning behind the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to the bill.
“Hate crimes were established for those with immutable characteristics,” she said. “It’s something you cannot change. To say a police officer needs protecting because they are in a uniform is the same as saying a doctor or a nurse needs protecting because they wear a uniform. A police officer being assaulted, yes, that’s sad, but it’s not a hate crime.”
Weisel said hate crimes are intended to protect certain classes of citizens because of innate and unchangeable characteristics who they are and not what they do for a living. For example, those protected classes include race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, country of origin, those with disabilities and the homeless, for example.
However, Delegate Mike Griffin (R-35B) pointed out some of those characteristics can be changed.
“You talk about characteristics that cannot be changed and you mention religion,” he said. “I’m a religious person myself, but I do have the ability to change to a different religion, or not be religious at all.”