Hartford police union backs chief on town immigration policy change

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/8/2019 10:00:46 PM
Modified: 8/8/2019 10:00:36 PM

HARTFORD — Members of the town’s police department say they fully back Chief Phil Kasten as he raises concerns about a proposal that could limit officers’ ability to communicate with local and federal authorities about a person’s immigration status in town.

In a letter written Tuesday, the union representing police officers and dispatchers also praised Kasten for his “relentless effort” to change the culture of the department by building relationships with citizens, organizations and businesses since he started in March 2015.

“It is the position of the union that we place full faith and confidence in the ability/opinions of our Police Chief Phillip Kasten,” local union president Daniel Solomita, a sergeant in the Hartford department, wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Officer Eric Clifford and communications specialist Martha Morse, who are also union local officials.

The letter commended Kasten for pushing town officials to “fully understand the latent consequences to implementing” changes to policing policy in Hartford.

The Selectboard has been considering making changes to the town’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy or enacting an ordinance to provide what supporters say are better protections for undocumented immigrants. But Kasten hasn’t supported the changes as proposed in part because they contradict federal law and could put him and his officers in a tight spot from an enforcement standpoint. He also has said his officers already don’t inquire about the immigration status of people they encounter, and current policy is Hartford doesn’t aid federal immigration authorities.

More than 150 people who support greater protections have put pressure on the Selectboard over the past two months to make a policy change or enact an ordinance, with many saying that Kasten’s position shouldn’t hold the most weight with town officials.

“Is this ruled by the police chief?” one man shouted at the end of the July 30 meeting when it became clear that the board wasn’t going to vote in favor of either change that night.

“We don’t elect Chief Kasten to write the laws,” Hartland resident Kira Kelley, an attorney, told the board at a meeting in June.

Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis has spoken publicly about how the decision is an important balancing act. He has said that having a policy or ordinance in place is just as important as having a good culture within the police department.

The change must be enforceable too, he said.

What the letter makes clear is that the 19-member union, which comprises police officers through the rank of sergeant, detectives and dispatchers, believes Kasten has handled the matter professionally and appropriately.

“As a result, the bargaining unit of the Hartford Police Department and the Hartford Emergency Communications Center fully support Chief Kasten, not only regarding his leadership ability in this contentious debate, but his overall ability to lead the department going forward,” the letter said.

The union also thinks the Selectboard should put any changes on hold “to ensure current legal requirements and protections are addressed appropriately,” Solomita, who was hired by former Police Chief Glenn Cutting in January 2012, wrote in a follow-up email.

At the latest Selectboard meeting on the topic, at least one board member stated that there is concern that Kasten might leave town if a policy or ordinance he opposes is passed. Solomita declined to answer when asked whether officers have threatened to quit if Kasten leaves.

It is evident, from the letter, however, that the union backs its chief, who took over a department that had been demoralized by the scrutiny into a series of high-profile interactions with members of the public, including a lawsuit filed by an African-American resident who sued Hartford police alleging they used unreasonable force against him in his own home in 2010 when they responded to an erroneous report of a burglary. The case was settled two years ago with the former homeowner, Wayne Burwell, receiving $500,000 which included attorney’s fees, and no acknowledgement of wrongdoing by the two officers in the case.

Kasten, the union letter states, “has worked tirelessly to transform the Hartford Police Department into the benchmark of law enforcement professionalism that we believe it to be.”

Town officials also have confidence in him. Both Dennis and School Board Chairman Kevin Christie, a state representative, have spoken favorably of Kasten, who came to the town from Maryland, where he held a post as deputy chief of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department.

“The chief demonstrates a lot of care for other people as human beings,” Dennis said this week. “He is very dedicated to the standards of community policing that he is working to bring about.”

Christie, who chairs the Vermont Human Rights Commission and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which sponsored the bill on Fair and Impartial Policing, said the way forward shouldn’t be an “us and them discussion.”

Everyone who is a party to the topic has the same goal, he said, and finding a middle ground is key.

“We want people that we can respect and feel that they respect us collectively,” Christie said. “I think part of what the problem is is a question of trust.”

Christie said the public should have faith in Kasten, whom he called “a man of principle” who would not tolerate his officers treating any resident or traveler unfairly.

“And if it occurred, he would be the first one to take that person to task,” Christie said.

Dennis, the Selectboard chairman, said on Wednesday that he wasn’t yet sure if the issue of changes to policing policy or the ordinance would be an item of deliberation at next week’s meeting. Last week’s meeting on the subject ran for almost six hours and ended when supporters of a change in policy began hurling invectives at Selectboard members for not taking action.

The Selectboard agenda is typically posted at noon on Friday.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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