Talk of Tasers Dominates Town Meeting

Reading, MA — After a statement of thanks to outgoing Superintendent of Schools John Doherty by School Committee chair Chuck Robinson, Town Manager Robert LeLacheur presented a “high level” overview of the $124,971,354 Fiscal Year 2022 budget for the members of town meeting on Thursday night. This figure includes enterprise fund expenditures.

Town Moderator Alan Foulds

Finance Committee chair Edward Ross reported that the principle considered in the assembly of the budget was to “strategically invest the town’s modest resources to offer services for the community with strategic expenditures to prepare for the future.” 

The budget will be balanced using $2,870,000 of the town’s nearly $15 million in free cash reserves, focusing on several capital projects.  These projects include design work to replace the stadium turf and track at Reading Memorial High School and design work for roof replacement at Parker Middle School. This amount is more significant than is usually taken from free cash in a given year, but, according to LeLacheur, it represents a commitment from the Finance Committee over the next several years to use the free cash funds for one-time projects that invest in the community as a whole.

Taking a closer look, LeLacheur presented the line items for the portion of the shared cost of the budget, including benefits, capital expenditures, debt service, the vocational school, and Finance Committee reserve funds. He highlighted that health insurance costs had averaged only a 2.94% increase over the last eleven years, well below market rates. The $3.57 million capital budget is where the bulk of the extra free cash reserves will be used. 

Town Meeting member John Lippitt offered an amendment to remove a $110,000 capital purchase of tasers for the police department from the capital budget. Lippett explained that he wished for the item to be placed on hold until more community input and conversations could be developed around the purchase and use of tasers in Reading.

Police Chief David Clark

Police Chief David Clark explained that the $110,000 would purchase 26 tasers and the training of officers to become trainers in their use for the entire department. He affirmed that no taser would be issued to any officers until they were fully trained and that policies regarding their use were adopted.

As a non-lethal means of controlling what he termed “assaultive behavior,” Clark referred to the tasers as “One more tool in our toolkit.” He also assured the community that tasers would not replace de-escalation techniques already used in difficult situations.

After describing some of the physical effects on a person who has been tased, town meeting member Nancy Dockter expressed several concerns regarding the use of tasers, including liability issues, and the fact that several professional mental health groups have referred to their use as “abhorrent.” Town Counsel Ivria Fried responded with the opinion that the use of tasers would not open the town to any greater liability than any other use of force by officers of the police department.

Several other members spoke in favor of the amendment, expressing concern over the use of tasers on people with mental health or substance abuse issues, with several wondering if funds would be better spent on a mental health professional trained in de-escalation. Others expressed concern as to whether or not the addition of tasers would over-complicate an already challenging job that police officers possess.

Town Meeting Member Vanessa Alvarado shared similar concerns as Docktor, reminding Town Meeting that this amendment was not a “no” to tasers but just a pause in the process to allow the town to consider its options, as it has done on numerous other issues, significantly when expending financial resources.

Town Meeting Member Marianne Downing read a news account of how a Wakefield officer with a taser was required to assist Reading police officers in a situation only a few years ago, wondering aloud why Reading officers were not so equipped. Clark had shared earlier that all of Reading’s neighboring communities have outfitted their officers with tasers. 

Several members chimed in, saying that they trusted the police to know how to do their jobs and determine their equipment needs. Town Meeting Member Michael Giacalone agreed, “The police need what they need,” Giacalone argued.

Deputy Police Chief Christine Amendola suggested that it was unlikely that tasers would be used in more than a “handful” of situations annually. Clark added that 58% of persons comply with verbal orders once a warning regarding a taser is issued.

The back and forth debate continued for over two hours, which contained one failed motion to end the debate after about an hour and a half of discussion. Once the debate ended, 36 members requested a roll call vote on the amendment. Moderator Alan Foulds reported that after the roll call vote was taken by a vote of 35-145, the amendment on removing the tasers from the capital plan had failed. The vote of each individual member on the amendment will be available as part of the meeting minutes.

By a vote of 130-35, Town Meeting adjourned for the evening at 10:30 pm and will pick up business on the FY 2022 budget on Monday, May 3.

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