By Bob Salsberg, Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Legislation that would toughen penalties for individuals convicted of violent assaults on police officers would not become a tool for suppressing protest, say law enforcement officials and other supporters of the measure.

The testimony came during a hearing Wednesday of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on the bill, which was filed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker after the fatal shooting in May of Auburn Police Officer Ronald Tarentino Jr. during a traffic stop. The suspect, Jorge Zambrano, was later killed in a gun battle that also left a state trooper wounded.

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Zambrano was free at the time despite a lengthy criminal record and several pending cases, including two that involved violent encounters with police, according to court records.

Officer Ronald Tarentino. (Photo credit: Auburn Police Department)

Officer Ronald Tarentino. (Photo credit: Auburn Police Department)

The proposed law would change the crime of assault and battery on a police officer from a misdemeanor to a felony and allow judges to consider whether a defendant is dangerous enough to be held without bail pending trial. The measure would also set a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison for anyone convicted of assault and battery on a police officer that results in serious injury.

Middletown Police Chief James DiGianvittorio told the panel that individuals facing arrest have many areas of recourse, but “assaulting a police officer is not one of them.”

While the Massachusetts bill was filed in June before the killings last week of five police officers in Dallas, some speakers at the hearing alluded to what they viewed as escalating attacks on law enforcement nationwide. Civil libertarians, meanwhile, urged lawmakers to take a cautious approach to the bill, citing the ongoing national debate over use of deadly force by police and unequal treatment of minorities.

“Our concern here is not to argue that assault on a police officer is acceptable or appropriate, or that serious injury to a police officer is anything other than horrifying,” said Alex Marthews, president of the Massachusetts-based group Digital Fourth.

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Assault charges often arise from crowd dispersal efforts by police during protests, he added, and strengthening the penalties could lead to “more instances of abusive suppressions of protests going unpunished.”

Supporters of the bill, including Secretary of Public Safety Dan Bennett, said the proposed law would apply only to altercations that result in significant injuries, not otherwise minor scuffles.

“I think the fear on some people’s part is that this will involve a shove, or a push, or that it will be used as a sword rather than a shield against the public by overzealous officers,” said Bennett. “I understand the fear of that, but there is a safeguard and that is (the requirement of) serious bodily injury.”

Republican Rep. Timothy Whelan, a retired state trooper, said the most dangerous situations for officers generally occur not during protests but when encountering violent individuals in the course of domestic abuse calls, drunken driving arrests or other common police work.

“How many prisoners have I had in my career who said to me, while I’m transporting them to the barracks for booking, ‘you just wait until you take these handcuffs off,’ or words to that effect,” said Whelan.

With barely two weeks remaining in the legislative session, it was unclear if the late-filed bill would advance to a vote this year.

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