MONTPELIER -- Macadam Mason was a "teddy bear" whose death from a state trooper’s stun gun could have been avoided if Vermont had stricter statewide rules and training for the use of the devices, Rep. Jim Masland said Tuesday.
The Thetford Democrat knew Mason not only as a constituent but as a neighbor -- and the jarring impact of his death last June led Masland to co-sponsor legislation that would put in place stricter regulations for stun-gun use by law enforcement.
"Those of us who know him fairly well were really very thunderstruck by his death. He was, in our opinion, kind of a teddy bear," he said. "His death was completely unnecessary."
Supporters believe the bill, co-sponsored by 30 legislators, would prevent a death like Mason’s from happening again.
Mason, who had a history of mental health issues and epilepsy, was acting erratically on June 29. He had called a hospital crisis line saying he was suicidal before being shot in the chest by a state trooper when authorities said he failed to comply with order and made threatening movements. Mason, 39, died of a heart attack.
Attorney General William Sorrell and the Orange County state’s attorney announced last month that Senior Trooper David Shaffer was justified in using the stun gun.
The Criminal Justice Training Council would develop regulations and training for the use of stun guns, including ensuring that those using the devises get training in mental health issues to prevent their "unwarranted" use, the bill says.
"It is essential that all law enforcement officers or anyone who is carrying a Taser has comprehensive training on both the operation of the Taser and when and when not to use it," Masland said.
At least two other states, Florida and Georgia, have statutes on the use and training requirements for stun guns.
Vermont state police require training before a stun gun is used. And all recruits at the Vermont Police Academy are required to take a 6.5-hour class in how to interact with people experiencing a mental health crisis, said Vermont State Police spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro.
In local police agencies, the training is different from department to department and it’s typically up to the municipality what standards are used, said Rep. Anne Donahue, a cosponsor of the bill.
The Vermont State Police and Department of Mental Health have been working to collaborate in responding to people in mental health crises. Mental Health Commissioner Patrick Flood has said the aim is to have a mental health counselor or counselors respond along with police to a situation like the one in Thetford.
Under the bill, stun guns would only be used in situations where deadly force is justified or to reduce the risk of someone dying by harming themselves. They would not be used for the primary purpose of punishment, subduing a suspect or getting them to comply with an order.