April 9, 2017

Editorial: Tarentino killing could — and should — mark turning point for state law

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Sam Doran / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker

Legislation proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker last week would toughen the state’s stance against physical attacks on police. The legislation is sensible — and it is of particular interest in Central Massachusetts.

“An Act Relative to Assault and Battery on a Police Officer” had its painful beginnings in Auburn months ago, in the after-midnight darkness on the leafy roadside of an otherwise quiet residential thoroughfare.

During a traffic stop early Sunday, May 22, 2016, Police Officer Ronald Tarentino was fatally shot in the back, allegedly by the man he’d pulled over on Rochdale Street.

The suspect, 35-year-old Jorge Zambrano — himself killed later that day in a shootout with police — was the sort of person who had made clear for years that he was a nightmare up and down the law enforcement system. He reportedly had racked up more than 80 cases in the courts, including three that mentioned fights with police, and was due for his next appearance before a judge the following month.

Baker’s proposal came on the heels of the question many of us were asking last spring: Why was this guy still on the streets?

The governor first proposed legislation shortly after Tarentino’s killing, aiming to tighten the rules governing assault and battery against police officers. However, the bill filed last year arrived late in the legislative session and wasn’t taken up.

Baker pledged to revisit the issue this year, and last week kept his word, sending a letter to House and Senate leaders specifying again the changes he wants.

For one, Baker wrote, judges currently must release a person charged with assaulting a police officer in the line of duty. The new legislation would allow judges to consider whether the person so charged presents a danger to the community, and if so, would allow for the person to be detained awaiting trial.

A second major change is that causing serious physical harm to a police officer would be upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Judges would no longer be allowed to continue a case without a finding, place the defendant on probation, or give such a defendant a suspended sentence. “These are not appropriate punishments when a person breaks a police officer’s jaw or arm, blinds an officer or causes an injury that results in a substantial risk of death,” the governor wrote.

Further, judges would be required to impose a minimum sentence of at least one year of incarceration in cases of serious bodily harm to a police officer. And Baker asks that the maximum sentence in such cases be increased to 10 years in state prison, up from the current two-and-a-half years. Prisoners sentenced to a house of correction would face a maximum of two-and-a-half years.

These changes to procedures are not going to ensure there are no more Tarentinos.

Or Zambranos.

Dangerous and reckless people aren’t generally up on the law, and don’t much care about the finer points of fairness, justice and balance debated at the State House or in judges’ minds behind the bench.

However, if these provisions had been in place before last May, Jorge Zambrano might not have been a free man driving in Auburn. Officer Tarentino — 42, a husband and a father of three — might still be out patrolling his community and endeavoring to keep its residents safe.

These matters are complicated. But it’s safe to say the Tarentino traffic-stop killing gave state officials and residents much to reflect on, from rules that seem overly lax with respect to assaults on police, to the order and protection police forces provide us by doing a job that is risky and unpredictable.

Baker’s measures strengthening consequences and giving the system more recourse after serious instances of assault and battery on a police officer — partly inspired by the killing of Ronald Tarentino — are reasonable and appropriate. The relatively unusual kind of criminal who would attack a police officer shows a blatant and pointed disregard for law, and also attacks a safety resource relied on deeply by the community.

Meanwhile, it is imperative that residents respect police. Communities cannot run smoothly and offer a sense of ease and security without that essential support. For their part, police officers and police departments must conduct themselves such that they are continually worthy of respect.

We wish Gov. Baker’s proposed rule changes had been enacted more swiftly. They are designed to better protect police officers and thus the public, and locally will also provide some meaningful consolation after a town police officer’s senseless death.

The Legislature should craft and pass this legislation, this session, with a sense of urgency and respect those it would protect deserve.

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