Michelle Monroe, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor believes in planning for the worst case scenario, which is why his department is using federal grant funds to purchase tear gas and a delivery system for the gas.
The St. Albans Police Dept. (SAPD) has received a $14,000 Justice Assistance Grant of from the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition to the tear gas, the SAPD will also purchase pepper spray, replace shotguns, upgrade its computer firewall, add first aid kits to bullet-proof vests, and upgrade some of its Tasers.
The department has not taken any leftover military equipment from the federal government, as other Vermont law enforcement agencies have.
The tear gas and pepper spray are needed in case police are ever faced with an armed shooter who is holed up in a protected area, explained Taylor.
“The threats that we may face have to be pre-planned for,” he said.
Laying out a scenario in which a shooter was taking out random passersby from a third floor window on Main Street, Taylor said, “I can’t be the police chief who says we can’t do anything.”
“If I can’t get to you, what I need to be able to do is change your environment,” said Taylor. Launching tear or pepper gas would change the environment and drive a shooter in that situation away from the window, he explained.
The most well known uses of tear gas in the past few years have been against unarmed protestors. Unarmed kneeling students at University of California at Davis were gassed in 2011 by campus security, for example. And since the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, in Ferguson, Missouri last month, protestors have been greeted by heavily armed police using tear gas.
“It would never be my intention we would use something like that against citizens exercising their constitutional rights,” said Taylor.
Taylor believes citizens should ask about the capabilities of their local police departments. “I, too, am very cautious about our capabilities, but I also ask, ‘What if?'” he said.
An exercise at the Union Carbide building in which the SAPD discovered they would have no way to quickly take out an active shooter in that building lead to having a certified sharpshooter on the department, for example.
Taylor has also expanded the department’s ‘less than lethal’ options, such as Tasers and beanbag rounds for shotguns. “It’s a capability we have, and I’m hopeful we will never need to use,” he said of the beanbags.
Although he has been a police officer for 37 years, he has never fired his gun in the line of duty, Taylor said. “I’m prepared to and hope I never have to,” he said.
Tasers have been controversial around the country, particularly their use against unarmed mentally ill patients who don’t comply immediately with police instructions.
In 2012, Macadam Mason of Thetford was tased by Vermont Police while in the midst of a mental health crisis. He had experienced an epileptic seizure the day before and his family reported his cognitive abilities would become impaired following a seizure. The electric charge from the Taser led to Mason’s death.
Earlier this year, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill requiring the Law Enforcement Advisory Board to develop a statewide policy for Taser use.
“I have four children,” said Taylor. “I know sometimes people do something they shouldn’t do. I would prefer the police tase my sons rather than shoot them.”
Pepper spray has also been a problem at least for Hartford police. In 2010 that department used pepper spray against a black man in diabetic shock in his own home when he failed to follow their instructions. Police broke into his home after a neighbor’s maid had called police convinced the black man was an intruder.
“I’m not advocating we use any of these tools inappropriately,” said Taylor.
SAPD officers are monitored almost continuously to insure appropriate conduct. All radio and phone conversations are recorded. There are cameras in their cars that record audio and video as soon as an officer turns on the blue lights, and the vehicles speed and location is monitored using GPS.
“There’s not much an officer can’t do that we can’t view and make an independent evaluation,” said Taylor.
Following an incident earlier this year involving a local attorney, Taylor outfitted all uniformed officers with body cameras. That incident was recorded by the officer’s vehicle camera, but Taylor said he heard complaints that video didn’t reveal enough.
In some departments, police unions have resisted the monitoring, but not here, according to Taylor. “My officers believe these things will vindicate them,” he said.
So far, only one complaint against an officer, for excessive speed, has been born out by the recorded evidence. That officer was disciplined and given additional training, explained Taylor.
Taylor spoke with the Messenger on Wednesday morning. Coincidentally, SAPD had just been called to a home where a son was attacking his parents with a baseball bat.
When entering such a situation, police first rely on their presence to serve as deterrent. Many times, people will stop criminal or violent behavior when police arrive, he explained.
Next, police will issue orders in a loud, clear voice.
If the behavior continues, officers will be forced to take action. That could mean separating two or more individuals, but it could also mean using blunt force such as a baton or pepper spray. “It could be a Taser,” said Taylor.
If an officer draws a Taser, he or she must be prepared to draw a firearm, said Taylor.
SAPD officers carry semi-automatics that fire between eight and 18 rounds before reloading.
“We shoot to stop,” said Taylor. “When the threat stops, we stop.”
Unlike on television, oftentimes people will continue with what they were doing after the first shot, he said. “The plan is always to use the minimal amount of force to accomplish the mission,” Taylor said.
At the SAPD, racial profiling will not be tolerated, Taylor said. Racial profiling can be difficult to explain to residents, who point to the newcomer who looks different, according to Taylor.
Looking different is not a reason for police to stop someone. “We do not engage just because somebody looks different,” said Taylor.
The SAPD has an anti-bias policing policy and trains its officers to follow that policy, according to Taylor.
Taylor has also sought to create a diverse department, but female candidates are hard to find, he said, as are candidates from ethnic or racial minorities.