Fourteen police officials and three local politicians gathered behind a podium Tuesday morning to tell the assembled members of the news media -- two reporters and a TV cameraman -- that they are pleased with a state law that will put police officers on par with police dogs.
Dwindling are the days when unruly suspects can lash out at officers without risking more than a misdemeanor assault charge. Beginning Saturday, it will be a felony to assault a police officer in Maryland. It is already a felony to assault a police dog.
"We're very glad that this bill went through which makes it equivalent to assaulting a police dog to assault a police officer," said Sheriff Frederick E. Davis (R).
The news conference took place on the grounds of the Charles County Sheriff's Office headquarters, in front of a stone monument dedicated to "all who have honorably served the office of the sheriff."
Davis said in an interview that he had been assaulted a number of times in the line of duty, including one time in the 1970s when, as a young officer with the Maryland State Police, he was thrown to the ground as he attempted to break up a bar fight.
"If you serve in the police force for 40 years, it's going to happen," he said.
The new law is intended to make it happen less often.
At the news conference, Del. Murray D. Levy (D-Charles) offered personal hygiene advice to would-be felons: "If you assault a police officer, bring a toothbrush, because you're going away."
Levy said it had taken years to pass the law because legislation became bogged down by attempts to also make it a felony to assault teachers and firefighters while they are on duty.
"It's been a long time pushing this bill through," said Del. W. Daniel Mayer (R-Charles), a member of the House of Delegates judiciary committee. "It's hard to get things through the judiciary committee because there are a lot of defense attorneys."
Before the news conference, Davis handed out a flier saying that "3,742 Maryland law enforcement officers were assaulted in the line of duty" in 2003 -- the latest year for which he had figures -- and that "the rate of assaults on law enforcement officers for the state was 25 per 100 sworn officers."
In Charles County, Davis said, there are 30 to 40 assaults on police officers each year.
Sgt. Jon Norris, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Charles County, welcomed the law but said most states already have legislation to protect police officers from abuse.
The law applies to uniformed and plainclothes officers. The assailant must know that the person he or she is assaulting is a police officer engaged in police duties, Davis said. To constitute an assault, the contact must be intended to harm the officer.
The penalty for a felony assault conviction is up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.