PHOENIX — A former constable and detention officer thinks he’s found a way to prevent peaceful protests from turning violent: new criminal penalties.
And he separately wants to put a kibosh on any consideration by city and county officials of reducing police budgets by providing financial penalties for communities that do.
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said he supports the First Amendment right to march and assemble. But he said what’s happened both in Arizona and elsewhere shows that it doesn’t remain within the confines of what’s legal and proper.
“It’s become the norm, any time something happens where people are upset, they think it’s OK to go out and destroy property and things of that nature, assault police officers and this kind of stuff,” he told Capitol Media Services.
His House Bill 2309 would create a new crime of “violent or disorderly assembly.”
As defined, it would cover situations in which an individual, acting with seven or more others, acts with the intent to engage in rioting or an unlawful assembly and causes damage to property or another person.
Violations would be a Class 6 felony, which carries a presumptive penalty of a year in state prison.
That’s not all.
Anyone arrested could not be bailed out for at least 12 hours unless a judge concludes the person “is not likely to resume the criminal behavior.” And anyone convicted would be denied public benefits and could not be employed by a public agency.
Mr. Roberts said he’s not looking to lock more people up.
“I have always been someone that’s interested in criminal justice reform,” he said. “But, at the same time, I’ve always said the punitive side of the system is important.”
What this provides, Mr. Roberts said, is a deterrence.
“We have to be stronger and give anybody that chooses to exercise their First Amendment right a moment of pause before they decide to not peacefully assemble,” he said.
That assumes that people who engage in rioting — which itself already is a Class 5 felony with an even longer prison term — actually stop and think about the penalties.
“Obviously, not always,” Mr. Roberts conceded. In fact, he said his own experience as a detention officer shows most didn’t stop and think, “or they thought to themselves, ‘I thought I could get away with it, I thought I would never get caught.’”
Mr. Roberts also acknowledged there are other laws already on the books that can cover many of these situations, including criminal damage, unlawful assembly and rioting. But he said what his bill does is add “stronger, punitive measures.”
For example, existing law makes it a misdemeanor to aim a laser at a police officer. HB 2309 would make it a felony if it was done while committing this new crime of violent or disorderly assembly.
It also creates that same Class 6 felony to obstruct a public street if done in connection with the newly created crime. The crime of misdemeanor public nuisance also would become a felony if in connection with violent or disorderly assembly.
And it even would raise the penalty for those who desecrate public monuments, including burning or mutilating a flag, if it happened as part of this new crime.
Mr. Roberts’ interest in law and order does not stop there. A separate bill would effectively bar cities, towns and counties from making major cuts in law enforcement budgets, regardless of the reason.
HB 2310 requires the attorney general to investigate any time a lawmaker complains about a reduction of at least 10%. If the attorney general finds that’s true, it results in automatic reduction in state aid of the exact same amount.
Mr. Roberts said this is aimed at what has been dubbed the “defund the police” movement.
More often than not, these proposals suggest diverting some of the dollars now spent on uniformed officer to other services. That can include more social workers and mental health specialists who can respond to certain kinds of calls where it might be more appropriate.
“This was huge last year,” he said. “You even had (Tucson) Mayor (Regina) Romero posting her political statements on the building.”
But the banner that the mayor had hung from the city hall building was “Black Lives Matter,” with no mention of defunding the police.
In any case, Mr. Roberts said, there should be no reduction in police officers in any case.
“If you want to add additional civil positions from a mental health capacity to go along with an officer, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. But Mr. Roberts said actually reducing the number of certified officers would be “a mistake.”
No date has been set to hear either measure.