By JOE PALAZZOLO, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - More than one out of four Maryland police officers was assaulted on the job in 2005, according to FBI data released Monday.
That appeared to be the worst ratio in the country, but FBI officials warned against ranking states based on the data because of the disparity among police agencies' record-keeping methods.
Assaults on police officers in Maryland climbed 4 percent between 2004 and 2005, bucking a 3 percent decline nationally.
About 4,020 police officers—27 percent of all non-federal law enforcers employed in Maryland—were kicked, punched, slapped, bitten, stabbed, clubbed, or shot at last year. Until May of this year, assaulting a police officer in Maryland was a misdemeanor, except in extreme cases.
Personal weapons, such as an assailant's hands, fists, feet or teeth, accounted for 3,416 of the assaults on Maryland police officers. Officers were assaulted with firearms 80 times, knives or sharp objects 42 times, and "other dangerous weapons"—which the FBI identifies as virtually any object capable of producing injury—483 times.
While the FBI data did not include state-by-state breakdowns of the circumstances and time of the assaults, national figures showed the largest percentage of assaults stemmed from disturbance calls and occurred between midnight and 2 a.m. About 64 percent of the officers assaulted last year were alone on vehicle patrols.
The accuracy of the FBI's Uniform Reporting Program depends largely on the state and local jurisdictions that supply the data, said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.
"The agencies that are involved in very diligent record-keeping are sometimes portrayed unfavorably," Bresson said.
Police officials have said repeatedly that the precision of their records and full disclosure to federal authorities create the illusion that Maryland is more dangerous than other states with lesser record-keeping practices.
But the numbers, staggering as they are, suggest there is some truth to Maryland's ranking.
The 19th most populous state, Maryland ranked 4th in number of assaults on police officers, behind California, Texas, and Florida, which rank 1st, 2nd and 4th in terms of population, according to 2005 census data.
Police officers in Virginia—a state that also prides itself on its recordkeeping—were assaulted a third as often as their counterparts in Maryland.
Of the agencies in the District of Columbia, only the Metro Transit Police's records were represented in the data. MTPD officers were assaulted half as often—usually with personal weapons—as Maryland police.
For years, Maryland law enforcers lobbied the state for a specific law that would make it a felony to assault a police officer. Before the Law Enforcement Officer Protection Act was enacted in May, assaulting an officer drew a misdemeanor charge unless a firearm was present or the police officer suffered serious injury.
In 2005, 34 states, including all Maryland's border states, had laws making it a felony to assault police officers.
"If you go into Nordstrom and pinch a purse, you've committed a felony," said O'Brien Atkinson, vice president of the Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police. "But if you got stopped by a police officer and punched him in the face—that was a misdemeanor."
Atkinson said he and other law enforcement officials attributed the spike in assaults on police officers in part to permissive laws.
"On the streets, people are concerned with getting put in jail. They're not concerned about catching a (misdemeanor) charge," Atkinson said. "We remain hopeful that making it a felony is going to reduce the incidence of assault. But it's going to take a while to resonate in the criminal world."
More than the new law, the frequent assaults reflect the policing mantra in Maryland, which stresses interaction over reaction, Atkinson said.
"Maryland is very proactive with regard to law enforcement, while a lot of other states with smaller police agencies are very reactive," Atkinson said. "If you show up after a crime is committed, the chance of being assaulted is slim to none. But if you're out there patrolling, engaging the public, chances are you're going to run into these situations."
Alex Ray, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, said that this administration's aggressive public safety policies and an increase in gang activity around the state have conspired to drive up the number of assaults.
Gang membership in Montgomery and Prince George's counties has surged in the past year, increasing by 30 percent in some parts, and spilled over into neighboring Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.
Police around the state have felt "strong pressure from the governor's office in terms of cracking down on crime," Ray said. "But the infiltration of gangs has more to do with the assaults. These gangs are crazy, they live in a jungle world they have no regard for life, limb or property—or especially police."