AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislation appropriating $233,000 to replace aging pistols used by the Maine State Police was killed by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee after Col. Robert Williams, the chief of the state police, pledged to find resources within his budget to at least start the replacement process.
“After the bill came out, we were able to find additional resources in the seizure and forfeiture account, “Williams said. “We were able to find enough money in that account to buy 100 guns this year and then we will use that account to buy 50 guns a year to get back on track replacing these guns.”
The account comes from criminal cases where assets are seized, often in drug cases, and when the assets are sold, the law enforcement agency gets the proceeds. He said in some cases, cash is seized in drug cases and the fund can become substantial.
The move was in response to testimony by the president of the Maine State Troopers Association, Sgt. Mike Edes, who told lawmakers last month that the handguns in use by troopers are so old that many fail, putting the trooper’s safety at risk.
“This is a serious, serious problem that has been put on the back burner for too long,” he said.
Of the 310 H&K 45 pistols in use by the Maine State Police, 268 have had their night vision units fail, as weapons have been in use for a dozen or more years when their estimated life is only five to six years.
“These weapons should be replaced every five or six years and we have some that are 12 years old and a few even older,” Edes said.
Williams agreed that about two-thirds of the pistols used by troopers are more than 10 years old. He also acknowledged the night vision equipment problem. He told lawmakers that budget constraints in recent years left the state police with having to choose between “buying gas, paying rent or buying guns.”
The weapons cost nearly $1,000 each, and some could be refurbished for less. Replacing the night vision unit, for example, is about $500.
The weapons wear unevenly, Williams said. He said many of the officers fire their weapons only to maintain their certification to use the weapon, which is far less often than troopers in the field or on the tactical squad use their weapons. He said his plan is to replace the most worn weapons first.
But Edes is still concerned. In an email, he said an appropriation for the purpose of replacing the weapons is preferable, because lawmakers are then designating funds for a specific purpose. He said there are no guarantees that higher-than-budgeted gasoline prices could again lead to funds being shifted to pay for those expenses.
“As Col. Williams testified, he has been forced over the past several years to make a choice of paying rent, buying gas and trying to keep troopers,” he wrote. Edes is concerned that could happen again over the two years of the budget. Williams was the deputy chief of the Maine State Police for the last four years.
That is a concern shared by legislators. Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the panel will closely watch to make sure the process of replacing the weapons starts this summer.
“I believe we have done it without passing a bill,“ he said. “Whether it would have been addressed without us having a bill brought forward is open to debate.“
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, R-Brunswick, is the only Democrat on the panel and is a former co-chairman. He said the panel will make sure the promise to start replacing the weapons gets under way this summer.
“The colonel promised me himself that he had the money to be able to put this program in place,” he said. “I believe that he is correct and I believe that he can do it, but it is going to be trust but verify at the end of the day.”
Gerzofsky said the committee will meet over the interim between legislative sessions and he plans to ask Williams for regular updates on the replacement program. So does Plummer.