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Town officials in Warren welcomed public comment Tuesday, May 24, on the issue of constables’ responsibilities, including whether they should be allowed to carry firearms. The goal of the public hearing, according to select board members, was to define the authority of the elected constables and establish the limits of enforcement as laid out in the state statutes.

 

Select board member Bob Ackland said that because the constables are elected rather than appointed, the authority the select board has over the constables is limited. “We can’t tell the constables what to do just like we can’t tell the treasurer or the town clerk what to do. We can control their budget, which in some ways controls what they can do,” he said.

With Vermont’s wide open gun laws, Ackland said, “Constables have the same right to carry a firearm like everyone else. We can’t tell them what to do. It boils down to the community members, and whether they’re elected or appointed constables. Then we decide what level of authority we do give them,” he continued.

Select board member Anson Montgomery said the issue of firearms is one of oversight and management.

 “Gene has done the impossible and got the city of Rutland to allow him to join their training, which is a really nice thing to get because a lot of departments are reluctant. We need to figure out a way to affectively have an armed constable and right now we don’t have the proper oversight or management to handle that,” Montgomery said.

Select board member Matt Groom asked if the town is paying for the training with the intention of the constables becoming fully empowered police officers. Washington County Sheriff Sam Hill said that in order to do so the constables would have to be authorized by the Vermont Crime Information Center to collect license and registration information, hire a dispatcher and keep detailed records of incidents.

When asked whether crime has increased or decreased in The Valley, Vermont State Police Lieutenant Paul White said, “I don’t think crime is increasing or decreasing; a lot of the work we do here is at the mountain in the winter. There are circumstances where the constables are a benefit, but I can’t render an opinion on what you should do on their authority.”

Washington County Deputy Sheriff Peter Laskowski said he completed a similar training program that Warren’s First Constable Gene Bifano and Second Constable Jeff Campbell are undergoing.

Laskowski is also the appointed constable in Waitsfield.

“Something you might want to discuss is, instead of having elected constables, have appointed constables, to have more nominal control. You have financial control over how much support you give your constables.”

Come July 2012, following a two-year extension of the state statute that mandates all part-time law enforcement officers complete 186 hours of training, constables’ enforcement powers will be limited without the certification.

Currently, constables still have power of enforcement. Bifano previously attended a five-day course at the Vermont Police Academy that covered firearms safety, use of force and extensive training on Fourth Amendment rights.

Ackland said that the town’s insurance premium will increase by $2,500 should the town authorize the constables to carry firearms on the town’s behalf.

In terms of liability, Montgomery said, “There are a lot gray areas, a lot of quagmires” specifically when the constables are considered on- or off-duty and when they are active in an official capacity.

Lt. White said, “Ultimately you’re going to have to make a decision on whether they’re law enforcement officers. If yes, part of that is carrying a gun. You can’t ask them to be on duty and not be armed.”

Groom said, “If we’re going to ask them to do things that put their lives on the line, and assume the liability and budgetary implications, why not pay for more hours with the sheriff’s department if we’re headed where we’re talking about heading?”

Warren resident Tom Shive said his car repair business was broken into last year resulting in a loss of $14,000 worth of equipment.

“I reported it to the state police and all of the communication we had was over email and by phone. I know they’re busy but I think having a presence is the important thing.”

Ackland said the bottom line was deciding whether the constables are going to serve as the eyes and ears in town, or if they are going to become law enforcement officers.

“I wouldn’t ask anyone to do enforcement without training or protection. Otherwise I’d tell them no and to call the state police” he said.

Bifano said, “Our job is to protect the citizens of the town; that’s it. The reality is when you hire a cop, there is a certain amount of trust with all the training they go through.”

Warren Department Of Public Works director Barry Simpson said, “The board made a decision to move the constable position to a voted position, in essence because you wanted an expressed interest from two people; now we have them and they are undergoing training, and now is an appropriate time to reassess whether it should continue to be an elected or appointed position now that we have a statute requiring training.”

 

 

 

 

 

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