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Hartford Won’t Buy Stun Guns

Police Say Public Relations, Ongoing Debate Factored In

Hartford — The Hartford Police Department has reversed course and decided against purchasing stun guns for its officers — at least for now — while authorities focus on a leadership transition and await the outcome of a statewide debate about the weapons.

While the Selectboard last year set aside $7,000 to buy several Taser stun-guns, public safety officials and Hartford Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg recently decided to forgo the purchase. Officials cited three reasons for the decision: The department is focusing on adjusting to a new leadership team, trying to rebuild the public’s support for officers in the wake of several controversial incidents and awaiting results of proposed legislation on Taser use that is brewing in Montpelier.

“We’ve got a lot going on in the department right now that (is) of a more pressing nature, and we want to see how the debate on Tasers settles on the state level,” Rieseberg said recently. “I wouldn’t rule it out. We’re going to wait for a more opportune time, (when) the future is a bit more settled.”

Earlier this year, the town filled the position left vacant by the retirement of former Police Chief Glenn Cutting with an unusual power-sharing arrangement: Fire Chief Steve Locke became the public safety director in charge of both police and fire operations, with Deputy Police Chief Brad Vail overseeing the department’s daily operations.

The department, Vail said in an interview, is also focusing on “rebuilding our image,” after a series of incidents in which Hartford police were criticized for using force against unarmed citizens in recent years.

“We have bigger and better things to work on rebuilding our image,” Vail said. “It’s not the right atmosphere to do it right now.”

But Vail said police may revisit the stun-gun issue in the near future. The deputy chief, expected to eventually take over the department, said he believes Tasers — which can deliver up to 50,000 volts of electricity into a target — can help officers resolve potentially violent situations without having to pull a handgun, or risk their own safety by coming into physical contact with subjects.

“I’m not against Tasers,” Vail said. “I think Tasers are a great tool in order to (avoid) having to use lethal force. It’s easier and safer for an officer to use a Taser than to go ‘hands on’ and use a baton. As long as everybody is properly trained and there are policies in effect, it should be properly used, so that’s not a major concern.”

Hanging over the discussion is ongoing talk in Montpelier of re-writing rules governing the use of Tasers in the wake of the death of Thetford resident Macadam Mason, who was unarmed when a Vermont State Police trooper fired a Taser shot into his chest. An autopsy determined that the Taser caused his death.

While Gov. Peter Shumlin has rejected a petition calling for a statewide moratorium on Taser use, lawmakers are considering requiring more training and restricting the situations in which officers can deploy the weapons, especially when dealing with mentally ill subjects.

Selectman F.X. Flinn said he was comfortable with the town’s decision.

“That sounds like ... really good reasons to me,” Flinn said of the town officials’ thinking. “I frankly didn’t (feel strongly) one way or the other. I don’t feel like I’ve got enough of a grasp on the whole issue to have a solid opinion on it. I know they are advertised as being less lethal, but it’s also true that there’s more training required.”

Locally, police departments in Lebanon, Enfield, Plainfield, Thetford, Cornish, Claremont and Canaan have decided to purchase stun guns in recent years.

Cutting had asked for the Tasers during the 2012-2013 budget cycle, but Rieseberg overruled him, citing cost and a desire to hold public forums.

But the Selectboard disagreed with Rieseberg, and appropriated about $7,000 toward the purchase of several weapons.

That money, Rieseberg said, has never been spent, and will essentially be held in escrow.

Tasers have sometimes proven costly to Vermont police agencies. In 2009, the Vermont State Police paid $40,000 to a Fairlee man to a settle a lawsuit he filed after he was shot by a Taser by troopers who thought he was resisting arrest but was actually suffering a seizure.

And lawyers representing Mason’s estate have said they are exploring a lawsuit against Vermont State Police in federal court.

Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council Executive Director Richard Gauthier said that his agency, charged with providing training for police officers, does not keep statistics on how many officers carry Tasers, but noted that, in addition to the Vermont State Police, the Winooski Police Department and the University of Vermont police both are equipped with the weapons.

But other departments, including the Benningon Police department, where Gauthier was formally chief, determined Tasers are not worth the expense, or potential problems.

“It is not universal, by any means,” Gauthier said.

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.