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Jim Kenyon: Gun Culture Claims Another Victim — At a Dog Park

Published: 7/2/2016 11:49:30 PM
Modified: 7/2/2016 11:49:30 PM

I can’t pretend to know what makes cops tick — particularly those who treat their sidearm as just another appendage.

So why Hartford Police Officer Logan Scelza would bring his 9 mm Glock handgun to the town’s Watson Upper Valley Dog Park on a recent Saturday afternoon when he was off duty is beyond me.

But from talking with current and former police officers last week, I learned that Scelza wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. When it comes to their guns, most cops have a don’t-leave-home-without-it policy.

Supermarkets, restaurants, fitness clubs — you name it — if an off-duty cop is there, chances are he or she will be packin’ heat.

In 2004, President George W. Bush signed the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act that allows off-duty cops, along with many retired ones, to carry concealed weapons in all 50 states. “The U.S. Congress has determined that in a post-9/11 world, the public is better served when off-duty officers are in a position to effectively respond in the face of a threat,” explained a 2011 FBI bulletin.

The bulletin didn’t mention threats posed by dog fights.

According to eyewitnesses, Scelza was trying to break up a fight between one of his two huskies and a pit bull in the enclosed dog park, a leash-free zone on town property.

A 20-something with a military background, Scelza didn’t immediately reach for his town-issued Glock that I’m told he had concealed in a waistband holster under his shirt. First, he jumped on the pit bull, punching it with his fists and pulling it by the collar.

When that failed, Scelza fired three warning shots into the ground before taking deadly aim at Diesel, the pit bull. He shot the dog four times.

At the request of Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten, Vermont State Police are investigating the incident to determine whether a crime was committed. I don’t think Scelza has much to worry about. In Vermont, cops investigating cops rarely find wrongdoing.

But I still can’t wrap my head around why Scelza had a gun with him in the first place. It was Watson Dog Park on a Saturday afternoon, not Central Park at midnight.

I wanted to talk with Scelza, who is on paid administrative leave, but couldn’t reach him.

To get law enforcement’s perspective, I called Ray Keefe, who retired in February after 29 years with the Vermont State Police. When I reached Keefe, he was driving through Lebanon. His .40-caliber Smith & Wesson was under his seat.

The ability to lend a hand in a life-threatening emergency is a big reason why he still carries a concealed weapon most places.

But it’s not the only one. Over the years, Keefe put away a lot of bad guys, including some of whom may hold a grudge and are no longer behind bars. For police officers, “there’s a level of paranoia that comes into play, and a little paranoia can be a good thing,” he said.

Many Upper Valley police departments, including Hartford, have rules about off-duty officers carrying weapons. One is, “If you’re going to be consuming alcohol, leave the weapon at home,” Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said.

Last Wednesday evening, I dropped by the dog park. A woman with a Siberian husky was sitting on a bench under a shade tree. Kate Lancor told me that she was a friend of Scelza’s. They share a love of dogs, and huskies, in particular, she said.

Lancor wasn’t at the dog park at the time of the incident, but had later talked with Scelza about it. She showed me photos on her smartphone of his husky, Kato. The dog had several puncture wounds in its throat that required a veterinarian’s care.

“I don’t think Logan should be condemned for carrying his gun,” Lancor said. “It’s part of his makeup.”

Lancor said she was “brokenhearted” over what had happened, but didn’t think Scelza had a choice. “What’s he going to do? Let his dog die? If he’d had any other way to get those dogs apart, he would have done it.”

I told Lancor that I still thought a dog park was no place for guns — even in the concealed holster of an off-duty police officer.

Consider that a good part of the park’s surface is gravel. Any of the three bullets that Scelza fired into the ground could have ricocheted off a rock. Other people were nearby.

Did Scelza’s actions put bystanders at unnecessary risk? Did he weigh the risks before pulling the trigger multiple times?

I understand that people are protective of their pets and dogs are considered family.

But whenever weapon-carrying officers, including off-duty ones, are faced with pressure-packed situations, they need to remain cool. Reaching for their weapon should be a last resort.

I’m not sure what Scelza’s future holds in law enforcement. At the least some mentoring seems in order. (Hartford police might want to put in a call to Keefe, who is about the most level-headed cop I’ve come across.)

Scelza isn’t totally to blame. I once heard in a Vermont courtroom that police officers are trained to eliminate threats.

Maybe what happened merely reflects that these are gun-crazy times. Firearms now outnumber people in the U.S., and we live in a part of New England where almost anyone can carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

Our gun culture has claimed another victim. This time, it was a four-legged one.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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