Some in Old Lyme oppose arming police with semiautomatic rifles
Old Lyme ― Lengthy debate about what constitutes an “assault weapon” and whether each police officer in town should be carrying one turned Monday night’s annual town budget meeting into a fight about guns.
The $40.97 million budget for 2023-24 passed in a voice vote, but only after the failure of a controversial amendment that would have removed seven semiautomatic rifles from the spending plan.
About 60 residents gathered in the Town Hall for more than an hour and a half to vote on the budget and several other items.
Voter Charlotte Scott broached the controversial topic during discussion on the overall budget by raising concerns about plans for local officers to carry AR-15-style rifles.
The Old Lyme resident said she’s worked in several high-crime areas — “which this is not.”
“I don’t understand why they would need AR-15s,” she said. “For traffic stops? I mean, what is the threat?”
Selectman Matt Ward, who is also a part-time police officer here, emphasized the rifles won’t be carried by officers “just walking down the beach on patrol” or in other areas of town. He said they can only be deployed with authorization from a supervisor.
“They’re going to be locked and secured in our vehicles. They’re not just being deployed for no reason,” he said.
The proposed purchase of the semiautomatic rifles by the police department was $11,000 of the budget proposal. It was endorsed by the Board of Selectmen in March before it was approved by the Board of Finance.
The Old Lyme Police Department is led by Trooper Matthew Weber of the Connecticut State Police. He is currently responsible for four full-time and three part-time officers with full police powers.
Weber in March told The Day his department is requesting Colt M4 carbine semiautomatic rifles. He said it’s the same model currently used by state police, which is advantageous because of the working relationship between the larger agency and his smaller one.
Weber has said the killing of 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown is proof that shootings happen everywhere, including close to home.
“My guys are on duty on both shifts, evening and day shifts, and it’s going to be my Old Lyme officer that’s going to be the first one in that door,” he said.
The resident state trooper has the authority to supervise and direct local police operations, while the town is responsible for administrative functions.
Ward pointed to the March 27 shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville that killed three students and three staff members.
The Associated Press reported the city’s chief of police and dispatch records indicate the suspect was killed roughly four minutes after officers arrived.
“They had long guns,” Ward said, using the generic term for guns with long barrels such as rifles.
Resident Kathleen Tracy, who made the motion to strip the rifles from the budget proposal, said she wasn’t opposed to long guns.
“I’m opposed to AR-15s,” she said.
State law defines assault weapons as any “selective-fire firearm capable of fully automatic, semiautomatic or burst fire at the option of the user.” The list of banned guns was expanded in 2013 following the Newtown shooting.
Scott, the one who started the discussion on guns, said officers with rifles didn’t help response time in Uvalde, Texas, where nineteen students and two teachers were killed almost a year ago.
Scott said responding police officers, some of whom had their own rifles, were afraid of the shooter. Ward argued the officers were told to stand down by the incident commander.
The Associated Press said it took 72 minutes from when the shooting started for officers to enter the building.
The Rev. Steve Jungkeit, senior minister at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, called for holding off on buying the rifles in favor of a wider conversation about public safety.
“I don’t feel safer as a human being by having a lot more guns out there, even carried by people that I trust,” he said. “Because good people do make errors of judgment.”
A vote to end the discussion, which requires a two-thirds majority, failed with only 58% of the vote. Debate continued.
Officials throughout much of the meeting were unable to specify the exact rifle model slated for purchase, which led to concerns from residents about the lack of information being provided to the public.
Finance board member Kim Thompson said members did not receive any narrative from police describing the purchase, nor did anyone from the department respond to her request for someone to explain the need for the weapons at a finance board meeting.
Ward eventually confirmed with two local police officers in attendance that the rifle in question was a Colt M4 carbine semiautomatic. He described it as a “a smaller, more compact patrol rifle; easier to carry and use.”
The Colt website said the rifle shares many features with the version used by the U.S. military.
Ward, asked if the guns are classified as assault rifles, said yes. When someone in the audience asked for a definition of assault rifle, the room erupted.
Moderator Vicki Lanier called for calm.
“Let’s try to keep some order in this meeting,” she said.
The definition of assault rifle has been a fraught one in the gun control debate.
Guidance from the Associated Press Stylebook directs journalists to avoid using “assault rifle” and “assault weapon” because the highly politicized terms “convey little meaning about the actual functions of the weapon.”
The vote on the amendment to strike the firearms purchase ultimately failed, 22-39.
The budget itself passed in a decisive voice vote without the need for a hand count.
The newly approved $40.97 million budget is up $1.1 million, or 2.75%, over the current year.
General government spending accounts for $11.2 million, an increase of $370,688 or 3.3%. The town’s share of the education budget comes in at $28.2 million, an increase of $727,820 or 2.6%. The $1.2 million capital spending proposal is down by less than a percent at $167 compared to the current year.
The Board of Finance met after the meeting to set the tax rate, which will remain unchanged at 23.5 mills. That means a resident paying $5,710 in property taxes on a house assessed at $243,000 will pay the same amount in the coming year.
Residents support elected town clerk, tax collector
Residents rejected proposed amendments to local ordinances that would have changed the town clerk and tax collector from elected to appointed positions. The amendments also would have lengthened the current four-year terms to six.
Only the voice of the first selectman and one other person was audible in support. The rest voted decisively to quash the ordinance changes.
The ordinance change received little publicity from town officials.
First Selectman Timothy Griswold and Selectwoman Martha Shoemaker after the town meeting said the issue was raised at a selectmen’s meeting once before. That was about six months ago, according to Shoemaker. The only other mention was in a legal notice published in The Day on May 9.
Griswold said the proposal mirrors moves in other towns to give the Board of Selectmen power to appoint certain positions in a climate where municipal job requirements are getting more and more complex.
Griswold said he’d let the issue “simmer for a while.”
“As for it coming back in a month or two, probably not,” he said.
Voters also accepted 1.88 acres of land as open space on Buttonball Road where an 8-lot subdivision was approved late last year.