By Danica Baker
Herald Staff Writer
CAMANCHE — A close vote by the Camanche City Council on Tuesday night is authorizing the purchase of four TASERs that police officers may utilize in the course of their duties.
Discussion on the issue began in May when Camanche Police Chief Bob Houzenga provided City Council members with an informational packet detailing the use of Electro-Muscular Disruption weapons and asked the council to allow the police department to purchase seven TASERs. Houzenga told the council he would like to purchase seven TASERs with cameras at approximately $1,200 each, totaling an expense of $9,241.
He said the money for the purchase already is in the budget, with the funds coming from the capital equipment outlay. At that time, Councilman Steve Cundiff asked Houzenga if the department could get by with purchasing fewer devices, possibly buying two and using one per shift. Houzenga replied that if he has to purchase fewer units, he would rather purchase four and have one device per vehicle.
After lengthy discussion at the May 4 meeting, the issue was tabled until all council members could be present. On Tuesday, Houzenga again addressed the issue. He noted that he recently attended TASER instructor school and became even more convinced of the benefits of having the devices and how well they work.
“In fact, you might say I was shocked how good they are,” said Houzenga.
He asked the council’s blessing to purchase four units at an estimated cost of $5,600 and remarked the motion could be worded not to exceed $6,000. Councilwoman Linda Kramer commented she had reservations about police use of the devices, but after conducting research had changed her mind. She recommended the council make a motion to approve the purchase.
Camanche resident Duane Knutsen asked the police chief if a cost had been projected for maintenance costs for the devices, such as calibration or repairs.
Houzenga replied that replacement cartridges cost $20 each if the device is utilized. Knutsen asked if Camanche had a necessity for the TASERs based on crime in the city. Kramer replied to the question saying that she is aware of a need for the devices because officers respond to incidents that the public doesn't always hear about. She said after learning about such incidents, it really changed her opinion on the purchase.
Councilman Steve Cundiff pointed out a TASER can be deployed at 20 to 30 feet, whereas a nightstick must be used in much closer proximity in a dangerous situation. Knutsen asked if the reserve officers also would be authorized to use the devices. Houzenga said the officers would be trained in what will happen to the subject when tazed but only regular officers would possess the device.
Councilman Ken Fahlbeck addressed Houzenga, noting his department has spent $6,000 on a speed detector trailer and $6,000 on the purchase of four replacement shotguns in recent months. Fahlbeck remarked that looking at the situation from a money issue, it seemed like padding the budget and asked Houzenga when the spending was going to stop. Knutsen interjected, saying the department could have purchased a different model of shotgun and saved money. Mayor Jim Robertson commented the discussion should be concentrated on the issue at hand and advised Knutsen he could have his say about the issue during the portion of the agenda set aside for public comment.
Fahlbeck reiterated his question regarding when the spending would stop, noting he had received comments from citizens about the costs of the new equipment.
"Just because we have money in the budget, doesn't mean we have to spend it," Fahlbeck said.
Houzenga explained that the department researches its purchases thoroughly and the capital equipment outlay fund is the result of seven years of saving and planning for such projects. Robertson stated he felt calling the funding "padding the budget" was a misstatement in that the outlay fund carries over from year to year. Councilman Ron Wehde said some citizens are saying the police department is racing to spend what it has and Fahlbeck added that when questioned about that opinion, he has no answer for it. Houzenga suggested he could spread the purchases out over time if it would help.
Kramer asked if the council was trying to micromanage the police department, noting that department heads are hired to perform certain duties. She said if the council did not trust the department heads' judgment, then the council should review them and their job performance. Fahlbeck said the council was not trying to micromanage, but stated the issue was a public matter. Cundiff agreed, saying that the council is accountable to the citizens. Councilman Trevor Willis noted the council approved the police department budget and asked if the council now was telling the chief he couldn't spend the money.
Willis posed the question when the capital outlay came about, remarking he thought the budget used to be composed of line items. Houzenga explained the outlay is a line item as of approximately the past seven years. City Attorney Tom Lonergan said the fire department has a similar line item called the encumbered fund for such purchases, which Camanche Fire Department Assistant Chief Bob Alm acknowledged.
Robertson said the principle of the funds is the same, to allow for the purchase of equipment and vehicles. He added the fund is a good thing because it provides funding for things not included in the budget and expressed the city's desire to be financially responsible.
Kramer asked if the departments must obtain council approval for purchases and if there was a set minimum amount. Houzenga said he believed that purchases amounting over $500 had to be approved by the council. He commented that amount is probably low and noted the police department can't come to the council to approve all purchases or it would hinder department operations. Houzenga added that he is drafting a taser policy use and reiterated that reserve officers would not be using the devices, after Cundiff and Fahlbeck again expressed concerns. During the discussion, one resident in attendance quipped that reserve officers are given guns, but the city wouldn't give them tasers.
Fahlbeck stated he was aware of a Clinton police officer who was injured after being tazed and was off duty for a year due to the incident. Houzenga said incidents of injury due to being tazed are an anomaly and nothing is 100 percent, acknowledging the potential for injury to a subject.
Kramer made a motion to approve the purchase of the four guns, with the purchase not to exceed $6,000. In the vote on the motion, Fahlbeck and Wehde voted no, while Kramer, Cundiff and Willis voted in favor, passing the motion 3 to 2.
Later, Knutsen addressed the council saying an increase in police department budget is unjustified when the department is spending the funds on "frivolous toys" and asked what would be next. He stated the purchase didn't make sense and guaranteed the council members they would be hearing from angry citizens regarding the issue. He commented that officers are trained in disarming subjects and said if an officer is not big enough to do the job, he shouldn't be a police officer. Kramer replied that a recent incident brought to light that at times, officers are on duty alone and face difficult subjects and odds with few options available to them. She pointed out there are two sides to the issue and many people would understand that the officers need the devices.
Knutsen said many citizens are concerned about the police department spending and added that the chief cannot guarantee the reserves would not use the taerss, making the city liable in that event. Robertson said the city carries a degree of liability in many situations but explained the use of a taser is an officer safety issue and considered non-lethal force.
Knutsen said he was against the purchase of the tasers and Robertson replied everyone is entitled to their opinion and he respected his. Knutsen replied in kind and said he was glad they could agree to disagree.
By Danica Baker