CHICAGO — City Council approved new penalties Wednesday against people who assault emergency service employees, firefighters and police officers, responding to a rise in attacks against first responders.
People who attack first responders at crime scenes, in ambulances and other professional settings can now be fined, jailed or both under city code. The penalties are separate from existing state laws.
Offenders could be fined up to $1,000 or be jailed “for not less than 90 days nor more than 180 days, or both,” according to the ordinance.
The ordinance applies to “any peace officer, fireman, emergency management worker or emergency medical services personnel.”
The ordinance passed City Council unanimously.
Speaking at a public safety committee hearing this week, firefighter union official Joe Senorski said more firefighters are being attacked when responding to emergencies. He said the penalties were needed to protect medical personnel who often arrive at 911 calls ahead of police.
“Sadly, we’re the first to arrive in a lot of these violent incidences and we’re alone,” Senorski said Tuesday. “There’s only two paramedics and an ambulance. And we sadly see assaults on the rise; we see attacks against our members on the rise. If not on the scene, in the back of an ambulance when there’s only one person with that patient.
“We do know that there is a mental health crisis in the city of Chicago right now. And, sadly, we’re on the front lines of it.”
Lead sponsor Ald. Matthew O’Shea (19th) said Tuesday the ordinance is badly needed as “our first responders are under attack.”
“Something has to be done to protect our medics,” O’Shea said. “We know that oftentimes, they’re there before the police; oftentimes, are there without the police. If we don’t do something, my concern is we’re going to see situations where the Fire Department is afraid to go into an area, go into a scene to render aid.”
But some progressive alderpeople and criminal justice advocates expressed concern this week about the measure, saying it could lead to less oversight of law enforcement and it overlaps with existing state law.
In a series of tweets Tuesday, the Cook County Public Defender’s Office called the ordinance a “politically expedient shortcut.”
“Any ‘insulting’ or ‘provoking’ physical contact with EMTs, firefighters, or police officers is ‘aggravated battery,’ a serious felony in Illinois state law. In fact, state law also already has a charge specifically for ‘assault’ of emergency workers, and it’s a class 4 felony,” the office tweeted.
“This ordinance would create a new charge available directly to police to charge anyone who allegedly gave the impression they would make ‘insulting’ physical contact with a police officer or an emergency worker. Again, no actual contact — much less injury — is required.”
In response to some of those concerns, O’Shea said Wednesday he plans to meet with other alderpeople and local groups to make sure the ordinance is only enforced when paramedics are attacked on the job.
“We agreed we’re going to put together a group, we’re going to talk about what those intended consequences might be to make sure that this ordinance can only be used to protect first responders, paramedics responding to scenes,” he said. “Now more than ever, we need to stand with them and let them know we have their backs.”
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) thanked O’Shea for “committing to work with mental health advocates, with civil liberties groups to make sure there are no unintended consequences,” especially for peaceful protesters or people experiencing a mental health crisis.
“My understanding is it’s the intent of the sponsor and everyone else that this primarily protect our first responders, our firefighters or paramedics, and that it not be used to criminalize people who already are facing a lot of challenges,” Rosa said.
The ordinance will go into effect this month.
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