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Editorial: Money Well Not Spent; Hartford Holds Off on Taser Purchase

It’s hard to imagine a better way to not spend $7,000 than Hartford’s decision to keep a police department appropriation for stun guns sitting in the town’s bank account.

The Selectboard approved spending the money last year in response to a request by then-Police Chief Glenn Cutting and over the objections of Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg. Cutting has since retired, and Rieseberg and the department’s top officials have decided to hold off on purchasing several Tasers, at least for now. They cited three reasons to staff writer Mark Davis:

∎ The department already has plenty on its hands in making a transition from the Cutting era to a new administrative structure under which Fire Chief Steve Locke has become public safety director, in charge of his department and the police.

∎ Prompted by last year’s tragedy in which an unarmed Thetford man was killed by a stun gun fired by a state trooper, the Vermont Legislature is considering requiring additional training in their use and imposing stricter rules on when they can be deployed. Hartford officials believe it would be wise to await the results.

∎ After three highly publicized incidents involving the questionable use of force by Hartford police, the department is now committed to restoring public trust. “We have bigger and better things to work on rebuilding our image,” said Deputy Police Chief Brad Vail, who now oversees daily operations. “It’s not the right atmosphere to do it right now.”

We applaud the town’s decision to keep the money unspent not only because we share the concern of many about the increasing use of a weapon that doesn’t deserve its reputation as a nonlethal alternative. More important is what the decision to postpone the purchase says about the department. Awaiting the results of the legislative debate shows recognition that the use of the weapon has become controversial and also sensitivity toward the opinion of the public in whose name the weapons are being used. That might not sound hugely significant, but police departments — and the municipal officials who oversee them — sometimes seem to forget that the public has a right to exert some influence in how they operate.

Regarding that sensitivity, this is the first instance we can recall in which Hartford has acknowledged that it has reason to be concerned about its relationship with the public — and that it has work to do in improving that relationship. Amid numerous news stories, investigations and lawsuits, the town and the department have steadfastly defended the conduct of its officers, giving no indication that it recognized any need for improvement. This acknowledgment of a serious public relations problem — very different from hunkering down and attributing adverse publicity to a vocal minority — strikes us as a very different response, and an encouraging one.

It needs to be pointed out that the decision on buying Tasers is only postponed. Vail, for example, regards stun guns as a useful law enforcement tool, and the department may eventually proceed as initially planned.

The wisdom of such a decision would very much depend on what, if any, new regulations are adopted by the Legislature. But by at least holding off, the town seems to have acknowledged the essential role that public trust plays in successful law enforcement — something that augurs well for the future of the department. That’s a very substantial return on $7,000 not spent.