Worn-out weapons putting troopers at risk, lawmakers told

Posted May 17, 2011, at 6:13 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The president of the Maine State Troopers Association told lawmakers on Tuesday that worn-out weapons are putting trooper safety at risk, and money needs to be set aside to replace the failing firearms.

“It is a sad state of affairs that we even have to be in front of you advocating for safe and usable sidearms,” the association’s president, Sgt. Mike Edes, said. “This issue has been put on the back burner for too long.”

Edes told members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee that the night vision sights for the weapons are wearing out. He said 268 of the 310 H&K 45 pistols in use by the Maine State Police have had their night vision units fail. The weapons, he said, have been in use for 12 or more years when their estimated life is five to six years.

“We are experiencing a 3- to 4-percent failure rate of the weapons,” he said. “While it may seem to be a small percentage to some, for those of us behind the badge, this number is catastrophic.”

Edes was supporting a measure that would spend $233,000 on replacing most of the weapons, which cost nearly $1,000 each. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, would allow revenue from the sales of firearms seized by the state police to be used to replace more weapons. Currently that revenue goes into the state’s General Fund.

“Our troopers need to know that they are going to have fully functioning guns,” she said.

Col. Robert Williams, the chief of the State Police, was on the hot seat to explain why the replacement of the weapons has fallen so far behind an adequate replacement schedule.

“We are in this position because we have come down in the last few years to buying gas, paying rent or buying guns,”  he said. “That is why we are in the predicament we are in.”

He said that Edes is correct and that about two-thirds of the pistols used by troopers are more than 10 years old.  He also acknowledged the night vision equipment problem.

“This is a great idea and I would like to stand up and support it, but it was not in the budget and we support the budget,” he said.

Committee members asked why a request to replace some of the aging weapons was not in the budget.

“I can’t answer why the prior administration choose to set the priorities they did,” Williams said. “I can tell you we have had weapons in every year in our request. We put in many, many items that did not make it, and I am sure every agency has millions of dollars in requests that didn’t make it.”

He said he wants to go back to a plan that replaces 30 to 50 weapons a year, but he has not been successful in getting that in the budget.

Lawmakers on the committee want to provide for faster replacement of the weapons, but did not reach a decision on how best to achieve that goal. There are concerns that simply passing the bill with a cost to both the general fund and the highway fund will mean it dies at the end of the session on the appropriations table because of lack of resources.

Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, said the issue is serious and should be addressed by the Legislature. He suggested that if replacing 50 or so weapons a year will solve the problem, that should be the goal of the committee.

“Frankly, there is no trooper out there that worries about where this money comes from, all he or she is concerned about is whether the gun they have will function properly,” he said.

Burns is a retired state trooper. The panel suggested several funding levels and possible solutions, but ended up tabling the bill until Friday. They said they want additional information from Col. Williams regarding whether some federal funds may be available to start the process of replacing weapons.

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