Dem introduces legislation to protect public health officials from threats, assaults

By: - December 8, 2021 4:22 pm

Octavio Jones/Getty Images

State Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) introduced legislation Wednesday that aims to protect public health workers amid the barrage of death threats and other violence they’ve faced over COVID-19 health mandates.

Senate Bills 781 and 782 would increase penalties for anyone who assaults, or threatens to assault, a public health official. The legislation mirrors an existing statute that makes it a misdemeanor to threaten physical harm against Child Protective Services employees and a felony for an assault.

Sen. Winnie Brinks | C.J. Moore

“Throughout the worst pandemic in a century, Michigan’s public health officials have been working tirelessly to carry out their constitutional duty to protect the public,” Brinks said in a press release. “This brave work should be celebrated, not derided. However, like many public servants, their jobs have become increasingly difficult due to misinformation campaigns and threats of physical harm to them and their families.”

During the pandemic, health officials attempting to keep the public safe by implementing such COVID mandates as school mask orders for children have faced an onslaught of death threats and verbal assaults. Kent County Health director Adam London, for example, detailed the threats that have been made against him and his staff in an Aug. 22 email to Kent County commissioners. In that email, London said threats against him included a woman attempting to twice run him off the road after he announced a school mask mandate.

“My team and I are broken,” London wrote to the commissioners. “I’m about done. I’ve done my job to the best of my ability. I’ve given just about everything to Kent County, and now I’ve given some more of my safety.”

Brinks noted the threats against public health officials are prevalent across Michigan.

“Unfortunately, recent reports indicate this problem is not limited just to Kent County, and that many public health officials have even gone so far as to resign because of the seriousness of threats associated with doing their job,” Brinks said in Wednesday’s press release. “I cannot stand to see another story detailing the fear these dedicated public servants must live through in order to do their jobs, and I encourage my colleagues to join me in saying ‘enough is enough.’”

Two Berrien County Health Department officials announced in October that they were resigning, saying the politicization of the pandemic has made it impossible for them to do their jobs

During a state Senate session on Thursday, Brinks implored her colleagues to become co-sponsors of her two-bill package. Ten Democratic senators are listed as co-sponsors. No Republican has so far backed the legislation.

What is sometimes lost in today’s political rhetoric is that a functioning government, with supported public servants, is not only necessary to keep people safe, to keep schools open, and to keep children learning, but a functioning and effective government, and health departments in particular, is also necessary because it provides the critical services that make it possible for businesses to stay open and, consequently, for bills to be paid and for our economy to function,” Brinks said on the state Senate floor last week.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki | Screenshot

State Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), who is co-sponsoring Brinks’ legislation, introduced a bill in October that would provide similar protections to school employees, who have also faced significant public hostility during the pandemic. That legislation has been referred to committee.

Michigan Republicans have been largely dismissive of efforts to address violence against public officials during the pandemic. In November, for example, the state Senate adopted a GOP measure condemning the U.S. Department of Justice for investigating threats made to school board members and teachers. And following media reports of London’s email, Republicans on the Kent County Board of Commissioners denounced the aggression faced by London but wouldn’t unanimously agree to sign a statement condemning the threats.

State GOP lawmakers have also pushed to pull local health departments’ funding over COVID requirements — something Republicans ultimately failed to do but which nonetheless led to some health departments rescinding mask mandates over budget concerns.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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