Bill would toughen punishment for people who assault law enforcement officers

By: - November 28, 2022 7:00 am

The bill would expand penalties for assaulting law enforcement officers and require offenders to be tested for disease if bodily fluids are involved. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Several New Jersey lawmakers have introduced legislation that would strengthen penalties against people who assault correctional officers and other law enforcement officers — and require them to be tested for communicable diseases if they do so with bodily fluids.

The bill comes as the pandemic has inflamed public health concerns about contagions and as assaults on officers rise.

Bodily fluids are an increasingly popular weapon in prisons, where state Department of Corrections staff reported 424 assaults by inmates in fiscal year 2022 — more than twice the 200 tallied the previous year — with nearly half involving bodily fluids.

“It’s beyond heinous. Honestly, I’d rather get punched in the face than have somebody’s feces thrown on me. It’s degrading and inhumane,” said William Sullivan, president of New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents correctional officers.

Because federal health privacy protections prohibit the disclosure of medical information without a patient’s consent, officers endure stress for weeks afterward, unsure if they’ve been exposed to disease, Sullivan added.

“There’s not only the vileness of the bodily fluid, but there’s also the what ifs that you got to think about when you go home every day to your family about what you could have contracted,” he said.

Assaulting a law enforcement officer, under current law, is a third-degree crime if the officer is injured and a fourth-degree crime if there’s no injury. The maximum penalties offenders face are 18 months behind bars for a fourth-degree conviction and five years for a third-degree conviction.

Under a bipartisan bill introduced earlier this fall, assaulting an officer would become a second-degree crime and carry a mandatory minimum penalty of five years in prison, with the accused barred from pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Second-degree crimes are punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, a fine of up to $150,000, or both.

If the assault involved bodily fluids, the alleged assailant would be required to provide a blood or other biological sample to be tested for communicable diseases, and the results would be shared with the assault victim.

The bill’s prime sponsors are Sens. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and Assembly members William Spearman (D-Camden), Alex Sauickie (R-Ocean, and Annette Chaparro (D-Hudson). Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Warren) introduced a similar bill in June, but Sullivan said the Gopal bill has more protections.

Sullivan said a 2019 law limiting solitary confinement in prisons and jails had the unintended effect of spiking assaults on staff because it removed the system’s most effective penalty for such assaults. When inmates do get charged with assaulting officers, Sullivan added, judges typically order their sentences to run concurrent to whatever sentence landed them behind bars, instead of extending their time behind bars.

“An inmate knows they could do whatever they want to us and within 72 hours they’ll be back playing chess or working out in the yard with their buddies,” he said. “There’s really no repercussions or deterrent whatsoever.”

People hurl bodily fluids at prison staff so often through their cell doors’ food ports that the Department of Corrections has been installing contactless food ports in prisons statewide in recent years to ward off such attacks, Sullivan said.

But that work is expensive and slow-going, which is why Sullivan hopes this legislation will pass.

Of 4,500 correctional officers in state prisons, about 500 of them are out on leave now, many due to assaults, Sullivan said. Any effort to reduce assaults on staff should help reduce staff callouts, he added.

Wayne Blanchard, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, also supports the bill because assaults on officers statewide are up. He said 719 people were charged statewide with assaulting officers this year through July 10, a 12% jump from the same period last year.

“Troopers shouldn’t just be an automatic punching bag or means to alleviate stress,” Blanchard said. “And there’s this alarming new trend where many troopers are getting spit on and bitten. It’s just reached a point where it’s completely unacceptable.”

The bill prompted concerns among some criminal justice reformers.

New Jersey Policy Perspective Policy Analyst Marleina Ubel worried the proposal would lead to a “perverse outcome where spitting on a police officer’s shoes would yield the same punishment as beating someone within an inch of their life.”

“At a time when national experts — and the state’s own sentencing commission — understand that simply increasing mandatory minimum prison sentences is ineffective at deterring behavior, this bill backtracks and proposes more punishment and more prison,” Ubel said. “And while the justification for these proposed higher penalties is correctional officer safety, the bill applies to every type of law enforcement officer at the state, county, and local levels.”

She urged policymakers to instead improve prison operations and conditions by implementing recommendations made in a recent watchdog report on prisoners’ complaints of inhumane conditions.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.