Vermont State Police plan to purchase semi-automatic rifles; body cameras on hold

VtDigger
Published: 6/5/2019 10:30:41 PM
Modified: 6/5/2019 10:30:33 PM

MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Police are set to purchase 200 high-powered service rifles, a purchase scuttled by lawmakers earlier this year when police sought to redirect money slated for officer body cameras.

Lawmakers nixed the money swap in January and told the Department of Public Safety to come up with a plan on storing the body cam video at a more reasonable cost. Public safety officials, in arguing to use the body cam money for rifles, had cited the prohibitive costs of $1.2 million to $2.5 million a year to store video footage. Those cost estimates have come down significantly, according to a report DPS filed with lawmakers in April and interviews with public safety officials and lawmakers.

The department now plans to use general operating funds from the budget starting July 1 to purchase 221 Sig Sauer M400 PRO patrol rifles this summer, according to state police spokesperson Adam Silverman. The total cost is $167,655.

Meanwhile, public safety officials insist they are committed to body cams and plan to move forward on purchasing them, which would be in addition to the cruiser cameras already in use and body cams for tactical units. The delay obtaining the body cams is frustrating, according to Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, who hopes to have all the outstanding issues settled by the time lawmakers return in January so the purchase can go ahead.

“We very much want the Vermont State Police to have body cams, in the interests of both the troopers and civilians on the other side of the interaction. We’re frustrated we don’t have a plan to have everyone equipped,” Ashe said.

Ashe noted that he was “puzzled” over whether public safety officials had inflated the storage costs to justify their argument in January to use the money earmarked for body cams for the semi-automatic rifles instead.

“I always assume people are acting in good faith but was frustrated. I wasn’t getting the sense they’d brought their A-Game to find a solution” to the high storage costs, he said.

In January, Vermont State Police Director Col. Matthew Birmingham said a consultant estimated body cam storage at between $1.2 million and $2.5 million a year, leading Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson to conclude “the rollout would be cost-prohibitive, and we could not move forward without a substantial increase to our base budget.”

After further review, the storage cost is now estimated at $100,000 to $200,000 a year, according to Silverman.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the price drop was due to using “cloud” storage technology as opposed to servers, as well as setting proposed guidelines for how long video would have to be kept. In cases involving interactions with police that include a confrontation, or that could result in legal action or are used in an investigation, footage would be kept longer, in some cases indefinitely, according to the DPS report.

“We will continue to work closely with the administration and Legislature on this project as we build our FY21 budget,” which lawmakers will begin to craft in January, Birmingham said. “It is a priority for the state police.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he shared Ashe’s frustration.

“I think that the department is very careful in whatever they do and methodical, and that’s part of the frustration,” Sears said.

Originally, lawmakers set aside money for the body cameras and storage as part of a $1.2 million appropriation two years ago. Instead, police used part of the money to update the cruiser cameras and hire a consultant to look at storage costs.

Lawmakers this week did not question the purchase of the rifles; instead, their objection was to using any money set aside for body cameras to purchase the weapons. Kitchell said she had been assured by Anderson the department had money to fund the purchase of the service rifles without touching money for body cams.

“The state police did not receive specific funding to purchase patrol rifles in the FY20 budget. However, we plan to use other available general operating funds to purchase the rifles this summer,” Birmingham said recently. The Vermont State Police has 332 sworn members.

Birmingham noted in January that Vermont State Police was one of the few agencies nationwide that did not issue service rifles. He said many Vermont officers carry their own personal weapons. A January incident in Arlington where a suspect shot at a police cruiser with an AK-47 prompted the request for the reallocation of funds.

Sears didn’t know until the Arlington incident that Vermont officers were not issued service rifles as a matter of course.

“I thought it was kind of automatic,” he said.




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