CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – A police chief whose officers impersonated firefighters to trick and arrest a man is brushing off complaints that the incident undermines the public’s trust in emergency responders.

“I would rather be answering concerns today from fire organizations as to why we did this than answering questions from authorities and the media as to why innocent people were injured or killed, or why were are still in a standoff with this individual,” Newport Police Chief David Hoyt said Thursday.

Hoyt’s officers dressed as firefighters and set off a fire alarm Wednesday to enter the apartment of a man who they said had pointed a shotgun at an officer.

Members of the state’s largest firefighters’ union and the New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs protested the incident during a news conference Thursday. David Lang, president of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire, said such impersonations could put firefighters and paramedics in danger because “criminals no longer realize who’s there to help and who’s there to apprehend.”

“When we walk up those stairs, the public has to know we are who we portray we are,” he said. “If we allow others to co-opt our image and trade on our good name … we create a breach of trust with the public that will be impossible for us to repair.”

Portsmouth Fire Chief Christopher LeClaire, president of the Seacoast Chief Fire Officers Association, said he fears people could start ignoring fire alarms because they’ll believe them to be fake. He and other fire officials want the state to order the police never to do it again.

“Certainly we would not put ourselves in a situation where we’re acting as law enforcement officers, and we certainly don’t want law enforcement officers acting as firefighters,” LeClaire said.

But Newport firefighters, including the chief, had no problem with lending police their equipment and gear, Hoyt said. He said police considered several other options but all would have ended badly.

The incident started Tuesday night when police received a complaint about loud music coming from Matthew Miller’s apartment. When Miller, 34, answered the door, he allegedly pointed a shotgun at the officer.

The officer talked Miller into putting the gun on the floor, then backed off after seeing other weapons and a baby in the apartment, Hoyt said.

Police decided to wait until morning to arrest Miller. Overnight, they learned he was a convicted felon who had committed several violent crimes, including some against police, Hoyt said.

“He was a great danger to the public,” he said. “We knew that if we as police were to walk into that building … he would resist, and possibly put everyone in that area, including police, in grave danger.”

The disguised officers activated the alarm, then knocked on Miller’s door and told his girlfriend they were investigating a carbon monoxide leak.

When Miller appeared with the baby, an officer asked to check the baby, and Miller was arrested after he handed the child over. A search of the apartment turned up other guns, body armor, a night-vision scope and a rifle scope, Hoyt said.

“This was the best scenario that we could’ve hoped for, and it was accomplished without any problems,” he said.

Attorney General Kelly Ayotte said she has spoken to the safety commissioner, the firefighters’ union and the president of the police chiefs’ association and plans to hold a meeting involving all the groups.

“I know police and fire are both focused on saving lives, and I know that we’ll be able to come to an understanding that will be focused on public safety,” she said.

AP-ES-03-05-09 1852EST


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