Iowa grants permits for blind residents to carry guns in public
Sheriffs and advocates are divided on whether that's a good idea.
by Jason Clayworth
Here's some news that has law enforcement officials and lawmakers scratching their heads:
Iowa is granting permits to acquire or carry guns in public to people who are legally or completely blind.
No one questions the legality of the permits. State law does not allow sheriffs to deny an Iowan the right to carry a weapon based on physical ability.
The quandary centers squarely on public safety. Advocates for the disabled and Iowa law enforcement officers disagree over whether it's a good idea for visually disabled Iowans to have weapons.
On one side: People such as Cedar County Sheriff Warren Wethington, who demonstrated for the Register how blind people can be taught to shoot guns. And Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, who says blocking visually impaired people from the right to obtain weapon permits would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. That federal law generally prohibits different treatment based on disabilities.
On the other side: People such as Dubuque County Sheriff Don Vrotsos, who said he wouldn't issue a permit to someone who is blind. And Patrick Clancy, superintendent of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, who says guns may be a rare exception to his philosophy that blind people can participate fully in life.
Private gun ownership — even hunting — by visually impaired Iowans is nothing new. But the practice of visually impaired residents legally carrying firearms in public became widely possible thanks to gun permit changes that took effect in Iowa in 2011.
“It seems a little strange, but the way the law reads, we can't deny them (a permit) just based on that one thing,” said Sgt. Jana Abens, a spokeswoman for the Polk County sheriff's office, referring to a visual disability.
Polk County officials say they've issued weapons permits to at least three people who can't legally drive and were unable to read the application forms or had difficulty doing so because of visual impairments.
And sheriffs in three other counties — Jasper, Kossuth and Delaware — say they have granted permits to residents who they believe have severe visual impairments.
“I'm not an expert in vision,” Delaware Sheriff John LeClere said. “At what point do vision problems have a detrimental effect to fire a firearm? If you see nothing but a blurry mass in front of you, then I would say you probably shouldn't be shooting something.”
One county sheriff shows how to train visually impaired
In one Iowa county, blind residents who want weapons would likely receive special training.
Wethington, the Cedar County sheriff, has a legally blind daughter who plans to obtain a permit to carry when she turns 21 in about two years. He demonstrated for the Register how he would train blind people who want to carry a gun.
“If sheriffs spent more time trying to keep guns out of criminals' hands and not people with disabilities, their time would be more productive,” Wethington told the Register as he and his daughter took turns practice shooting with a semi-automatic handgun on private property in rural Cedar County.
The number of visually impaired or blind Iowans who can legally carry weapons in public is unknown because that information is not collected by the state or county sheriffs who issue the permits.
The Register became aware that a handful of Iowans with visual impairments can carry weapons in public because county sheriffs and their staffs recalled issuing those permits. Sheriff officials in most of the cases said they were uncertain about the extent of the visual impairments.
Clancy, superintendent of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, said the range of sight among people who are classified as legally blind varies greatly. He believes there are situations where such applicants can safely handle a gun.
However, he also expressed concerns.
“Although people who are blind can participate fully in nearly all life's experiences, there are some things, like the operation of a weapon, that may very well be an exception,” Clancy said.
It's an issue that musician Stevie Wonder, who has been blind since birth, called attention to in January.
“Imagine me with a gun. It's just crazy,” Wonder told CNN while calling for reforms to what he has previously called “ridiculous” gun laws.
Some states do consider vision in issuing permits
The Gun Control Act of 1968 and other federal laws do not prohibit blind people from owning guns. But unlike Iowa, some states have laws that spell out whether visually impaired people can obtain weapon permits.
Vision requirements are either directly or indirectly part of the weapon permit criteria in some surrounding states.
In Nebraska, for example, applicants for a permit to carry a concealed handgun must provide “proof of vision” by either presenting a valid state driver's license or a statement by an eye doctor that the person meets vision requirements set for a typical vehicle operator's license.
Other states have indirect requirements that could — but don't automatically — disqualify people who are blind. That includes Missouri and Minnesota, where applicants must complete a live fire test, which means they have to shoot and hit a target.
A 50-state database of gun permit requirements published by USACarry.com also shows that South Carolina has a law that requires proof of vision before a person is approved for a weapons permit.
Wisconsin, like Iowa, has no visual restrictions on gun permit applicants. Illinois lawmakers enacted a concealed weapons law in July, but permits have not yet been issued.
Illinois' qualifications don't specifically require a visual test, but applicants must complete firearms training that includes range instruction.
The National Federation of the Blind does not track states that require vision tests as part of weapon permit processes and has not taken an official stand on the issue. But its members are generally opposed to such laws, said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the group.
“There's no reason solely on the (basis) of blindness that a blind person shouldn't be allowed to carry a weapon,” Danielsen said. “Presumably they're going to have enough sense not to use a weapon in a situation where they would endanger other people, just like we would expect other people to have that common sense.”
Iowa requires training for anyone who is issued a permit to carry a weapon in public, but that requirement can be satisfied through an online course that does not include any hands-on instruction or a shooting test.
A provision in Iowa's law allows sheriffs to deny a permit if probable cause exists to believe that the person is likely to use the weapon in such a way that it would endanger himself or others.
Many sheriffs noted, however, that the provision relates to specific documented actions, and applicants who appealed their cases would likely win.
Vrotsos, the Dubuque County sheriff, did not know whether any blind people had applied for permits in his county, but said he wouldn't hesitate to deny them.
“We do not track these applicants, but ... if I knew the person was blind ... a permit would not be issued, and this person would then have the right to appeal,” Vrotsos said.
But Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, believes changing the state law to deny blind people or others with physical disabilities the right to carry arms would violate federal disability law.
Part of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires a public entity to conduct an individualized analysis to make a reasonable judgment before denying a service. Hudson believes someone could successfully challenge Nebraska's proof of vision requirement as illegal.
“The fact that you can't drive a car doesn't mean you can't go to a shooting range and see a target,” Hudson said.
Other issues cited by Iowa sheriffs
The Des Moines Register earlier this year published reports about Iowa's 2011 law that requires sheriffs to adopt uniform standards in issuing permits to carry weapons in public. Read about issues cited by Iowa sheriffs, such as gaps in their ability to search a person's background for mental health problems and their inability to deny permits to sex offenders. Find complete coverage at DesMoinesRegister.com/gunpermits.
City police are hoping to expand downtown walking beat initiative
by Russ Olivo
WOONSOCKET – Despite the crimp in city budgets, the Woonsocket Police Department has found a way to bring beat cops back to Main Street, at least on a limited basis.
The city allocated a sliver of its $2.1 million Community Development Block Grant – just $10,000 – to fund the department's “Feet on the Beat” program.
“We're still looking for ways to expand the program, but we think this is enough for us to have one officer walk the Main Street beat one night a week for a year,” said Police Chief Thomas S. Carey.
Although the police run regular bicycle patrols on the Blackstone River Bikeway and in other parks, there hasn't been a downtown foot patrol for at least five years.
Carey says there is strong support for a beat cop on Main Street, particularly among merchants and other concerns who are drawing visitors to entertainment and restaurant venues on the weekend.
“People feel safe when they see the police around,” he says.
The Police Department has been hard pressed to free up resources for police officers to walk a beat, however. With manpower shaved from 101 officers just a few years ago to fewer than 90, police on regular shifts are universally deployed in cruisers, so they can respond to calls as quickly as possible.
The beat cop will always be a police officer who wants to work an extra shift for overtime, said Carey. Overtime is what the grant pays for.
Carey expects the walking beat to be a highly sought-after assignment, and not just for the extra dough.
“Sometimes the only contact a police officer is going to have is going to a call,” he says. “Sometimes the only interaction they have with the public is, ‘What happened?' This could be a little more upbeat and personable. It gives the community the opportunity to see police officers in a different light and helps build positive relationships with people in the community.
“This is what community policing is all about,” says Carey.
For now, says Carey, it looks like the beat shift will be Friday night, when the Stadium Theatre and the local restaurants typically draw the most traffic.
But Carey said the schedule isn't cast in stone. He said the Police Department will make it a point to keep abreast of entertainment listings and other special events going on to make sure the beat cop is deployed when he or she can be most useful and visible.
Whoever is assigned to the shift will be in uniform and carry the standard equipment of a cruiser cop, including a sidearm, a canister of pepper spray, and a telescopic baton.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said restoration of the beat cop is just another example of how the city is trying to maintain some of its most popular services even when resources have been stretched to the limit.
“It's just one more way we're trying to find different avenues to keep some of these programs going,” said Fontaine. “People have always enjoyed seeing police on the beat, and I think the police are going to enjoy it as well.”
The city, which is operating with a structural deficit of some $10 million, has been under the control of a state-appointed Budget Commission since May 2012. The panel recently approved a five-year plan that includes hefty new taxes, departmental consolidations and cuts in worker benefits to prevent the city from lapsing into insolvency.
The police department tapped the CDBG grant to run foot patrols for the first time during the Main Street Block Party last month, according to Carey.
A number of officers were also on bike patrol, another program subsidized by a grant – the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, which is a state program.
Nearly every police department in the state gets a share, based on population and the size of its police department.
KC's special police panel has critical decisions to make
For more than five months a group of Kansas Citians has examined how to provide strong oversight of a public agency that spends $210 million a year.
Now the Blue Ribbon Commission on Police Governance, which meets again this evening, is getting closer to making its recommendations.
The work of the two dozen citizens who have contributed their time will have been well spent if and when they issue a compelling report on how the city should proceed.
However, Police Chief Darryl Forté made it clear last week he has no use for the panel, even though it was appointed by one of his bosses on the current police board — Mayor Sly James.
In an online blog, Forté said he liked his agency being controlled through a governor-appointed police board. The chief concluded, “Our department's model of governance should be perpetuated for generations to come.”
As James acknowledged after Forté spoke out, the chief is free to make his opinions known. But the mayor also pointedly added about the panel members' work: “They are giving thoughtful and thorough consideration to this issue.... If and when we make changes to that governance structure, we will do it as a community and, as always, with facts and data.”
For the record, Forté hasn't been part of the fact and data gathering at the meetings, so he hasn't heard firsthand the commission's many detailed discussions of the issue.
The chief might be surprised to hear the process has included much talk about continued state oversight because it would give a sense of continuity to police officers, civilian police employees and some Kansas Citians. State oversight also is seen as a way to keep local politicians out of policing matters and to continue receiving a small amount of state funds.
But Forté in his recent statements ignored the downsides of the status quo, which the commission members — who are working on behalf of citizens, not the chief — also have discussed. They are real and worrisome. They include:
• Kansas City would be the only city in the nation without control through locally elected officials of its police.
• A part-time police board would continue to be subject to charges it provides inadequate oversight, as occurred in recent months over police project costs and use of a police sales tax.
• Distrust of police in certain parts of the city would remain.
• Cost savings from consolidation of similar city and police functions would not occur.
Forté also left out downsides of state control. One is that police have used their independence to fight good city suggestions such as trying to be more efficient with tax dollars when it comes to combined health insurance plans.
And the chief, while claiming regular political elections could change how the department provides policing, conveniently ignored the fact that the appointment of new police chiefs has done exactly the same thing.
Witness Forté's new emphasis on hot-spot policing in violent neighborhoods after he took over in 2011. Former Chief Jim Corwin used a lengthy consultant's report to partly remake his department. Former Chief Steven Bishop was a big community policing supporter. And so on.
It's also noteworthy Kansas City has had four mayors since 1991 — and five police chiefs.
Forté has made it clear he backs state control; The Star for years has endorsed local control.
The citizens commission's crucial recommendations should help influence the outcome of a debate that must be settled.
Rebranded Police Department Program To Reach Out To Public
by Sara Doyle
Last month, the Boston College Police department changed the name of the previous “Adopt-a-Cop” program to the “Community Resource Officer,” (CRO) program. In addition to a name change, the program will now include appointments to libraries, dining halls, recreational facilities, community organizations, as well as residence halls.
Sergeant Jeff Postell explained that the program changed as a response to the previous “Adopt-A-Cop” program.
“This is a very community driven program,” Postell said. “It's been in existence since 2006. It was originally intended to bridge the gap between police and students on campus and foster a relationship with the student body. As the years have passed, and the program has developed, we discovered the opportunity to reach out to our faculty and staff as we have had with our students.”
In previous years, the program has been focused primarily on assigning officers to residence halls. Postell found that reviews giving community feedback, however, indicated that the program might benefit from change. “We received 1,500 responses from members of the community, and one thing we identified was a lack of understanding about what the ‘Adopt-a-Cop' program actually was,” Postell said. “We started analyzing ways that we could strengthen the program and make it more effective.”
Postell and the department considered the purpose of the program and concluded that, since the “Adopt-a-Cop” program provides resources to the community, it should instead be called the “Community Resource Officer” program. This type of program has been around in high schools since the 1960s, but the idea of a police department focused on the community is even older. In the 1800s, Robert Peel developed a philosophy with nine principles of policing, which he applied to the Metropolitan Police Force in Britain. The CRO is based on these principles, which stress positive relationships between the police and the public. “It's taking practices and principles that have been in place for many years and reintroducing them to people of the modern time,” Postell said.
In order to determine the areas in which the police staff could expand its program, the department analyzed which areas had trends and repetitive incidents, concluding that open access areas could benefit from a police presence. Additionally, certain areas reached out and expressed interest in the program.
“We've had staff members in buildings who might have reached out to us and said ‘it would be nice if we had an officer as part of our community,'” said Chief John King, Director of Public Safety. King also stated that the program has been a success due to both the community and the officers involved. “It's so encouraging and rewarding to see how many of our officers have elected to participate in this program and make themselves available to help with this program and the community,” King said.
“We're very fortunate to have a welcoming community who wants that type of interaction with their police department,” Postell said.
The officers involved in this program will also have access to newly organized materials for educational programs. They will be able to have packages with which to educate the community so that the educational programs will be more consistent from place to place. Furthermore, each month will have specific themes that emphasize crime prevention and greater community awareness for a safer campus. For more information about the monthly themes, as well as contact information for resources officers, members of the community can visit bc.edu/cro.
“It's important that the community understands that we're their police department,” Postell said. “This is just another part of our department that is all about being part of the greater BC community.”
“At the beginning of the freshman year, our department is involved in the ice cream social. At the end of senior year, we are involved in the cookout. Between those four years, our job is to continue being a resource and a part of our community,” King said.