Wednesday, July 25
BRATTLEBORO -- Is it appropriate to use a Taser on non-violent protesters?

That's the question that many people in Windham County are asking after a pair of volunteer gardeners who were trespassing on private property were stunned by police Tasers after they refused to leave.

The two, Jonathan "Slug" Crowell and Samantha Kilmurray, of Dummerston, were part of a small group of people who "occupied" a vacant lot on Putney Road where King's Bowling Center used to stand, planting shrubs, flowers and even a tree.

VIDEO: Protesters arrested; police use stun gun

The property is owned by Jim Robertson and his family, who also own Cheshire Oil and the Citgo gas station near the roundabout on Putney Road.

Though Robertson has not submitted a formal application to the Development Review Board, he has said he would like to expand the gas station to allow for more diesel pumps and truck parking. He said he also has plans to eventually develop the 13 acres his family owns along the west side of Putney Road from the roundabout to Black Mountain Road.

"They used very violent means against two people who were helpless," said Janisse Ray, who spent most of the night camping out with Crowell and Kilmurray, but left about two hours before police showed up at 7:30 a.m. "It's a form of torture."

"Those people were just lying there, helpless," said her husband Raven Bouchard.

"All they had to do was take our water away from us and we would have been gone in 48 hours," said Kilmurray, after speaking at Tuesday night's Selectboard meeting.

"We were surprised that they were going to resort to such extreme tactics so quickly," said Crowell.

Both Crowell and Kilmurray said police officers threatened them with the Tasers several times, physically waving it at them before they actually used it.

Acting Town Manager Barbara Sondag said the department has been directed to review its policies concerning Taser use, adding protesters refusing to move "was somewhat new to the officers."

"Anytime any force is used on anyone," said Chief John Martin, "we always look at the situation." This includes reviewing policy and training and talking with the officers involved.

The protesters were removed at the request of the Robertsons, who twice asked police to evict them, said Martin.

"I didn't start this," said Robertson, when reached by telephone Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously it was their intention to have a confrontation."

Though he admitted he asked police to evict the protesters, he said "it was not my call" to use Tasers on the couple.

"They were left there for the evening so hopefully they would grow up and leave," he said.

Using a Taser is "a method that is noninjurious, though certainly painful," said Martin.

The Brattleboro Police Department relies on a "continuum of force" graph to inform them when to use coercive methods to get people to obey.

The continuum includes officer presence, dialogue, physical force, chemicals, Tasers, impact weapons and less-than-lethal munitions, such as beanbag guns.

Kilmurray was shocked twice before agreeing to remove her arm from the barrel. Crowell was shocked at least five times before he made the same decision.

He called the use of Tasers "a dangerous precedent."

"If the police have the ability to do this to non-violent people, in the future it will hurt the overall atmosphere of Brattleboro."

"By upping the ante, it discourages people from speaking their mind," agreed Peter Hawkins, who filmed the use of the Tasers.

"If you don't do what we say, we will Taser you," said West Brattleboro resident Phil Stimmel. "That's not appropriate."

With no danger to officers or the public, "why Taser anybody?" asked Brattleboro resident Gerry Benjamin.

"I can't conceive of why we would have to Taser peaceful protesters," said George Reed-Savory of Brattleboro, adding the police department should develop policies that insure it never happens again.

A spokesman for Amnesty International USA, which has called for a moratorium on the use of Tasers, said he was surprised non-violent protesters were stunned in, of all places, Brattleboro, Vermont.

"Here are these people practicing civil disobedience," said Joshua Rubenstein, the Northeast regional director for Amnesty International USA, based in Somerville, Mass. "There's no threat to anyone's life or liberty. No threat of injury. It's an outrageous use of force."

When Tasers were first introduces, said Rubenstein, "the public was told this was an alternative to lethal force."

But he said across the country, Tasers are being used "simply to get someone to comply with a police order" when there is not threat of violence "and certainly no need to use lethal force."

"We believe police are not properly trained," he said, and they often use Tasers as "a quick solution" and not as a last resort.

More than 70 people have died in the last three years in Taser-related incidents, according to Amnesty International USA.

"It has been used by police around the country in inappropriate circumstances," said Rubenstein.

In the press release describing the incident, police wrote, "it was determined that the subjects could not be safely removed from the barrel and taken off the property."

Rubenstein found it puzzling that police said they could not "safely remove" Crowell and Kilmurray and then used a Taser on them.

"How would Tasering them disconnect them from the barrel?" asked Rubenstein.

One police officer, who attended the Selectboard meeting "on his own behalf," said the protesters were being irresponsible, pulling officers away from their more serious duties.

"We are a very busy department," said Detective Eric Johnson, who said he sympathized with the protesters but disagreed with their decision to not leave the property when ordered to by police.

"If we go to a scene and ask you to please leave, just leave and move to a public place," he said. "Our responsibility is to enforce the law," adding "if I ask them to leave and they don't, what am I to do?"

The members of the Selectboard said they would wait to comment on the incident when the investigation is complete.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273