Board charged with writing Vermont's Taser policy asks lawmakers for direction


MONTPELIER -- Police and advocates for civil liberties and the disabled disagree over how much information police should have to report, and how often, about their use of electronic stun guns.

After the Legislature this session passed a bill calling for a statewide policy on how to use conducted electrical weapons, or Tasers, a law enforcement advisory board is crafting the wording of that policy.

The group has decided on a more in-depth policy that includes some best practices above and beyond the letter of the Taser law. The policy is not final and the Attorney General's Office is working on its own draft.

Meanwhile, the board is trying to settle on rules for how police will report data about Taser use to another police oversight board, the Criminal Justice Training Council.

The new Taser law leaves it up to the council to determine how data should be reported.

Taser use in Vermont is controversial after a Thetford man died after a trooper shot him with a Taser in 2012. MacAdam Mason's mother, Rhonda Taylor, has sued the state police over her son's death.

The American Civil Liberties Union found Vermont has paid more than $250,000 on other lawsuit settlements about improper Taser use.

Taser use by the Vermont State Police, one of the few Vermont agencies that keeps records on Tasers, has declined from 80 uses in 2011 to 36 in 2013.

The ACLU of Vermont and the advocacy group Disability Rights Vermont want police to report in-depth data frequently, but the LEAB prefers once-a-year, limited data reporting, according to A.J. Ruben, an attorney at Disability Rights Vermont who helped craft the law.

"The reports have to be detailed enough to allow an independent reviewer of those records to determine whether or not the law has been complied with," Ruben said.

In addition to specifying the types of situations in which officers are justified to fire a Taser, the law asks officers to first use de-escalation tactics, warn before they shoot and be especially cautious in situations involving disabled people or those who are in "emotional crisis."

It also includes requirements that police attend training in dealing with the mentally ill.

LEAB is still "hammering out" the reporting requirements, according to Rick Gauthier, the board's chairman. Gauthier is also executive director of the Criminal Justice Training Council.

To settle the disagreement, the groups have asked Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chairwoman of one of two legislative committees that built the law, to clarify in writing the committee's intent about reporting.

White said she plans to ask police and advocacy groups to work together to craft a data reporting system, rather than make specific recommendations in her letter.

"We just want to have some uniformity in the way it's done," the Windham Democrat said.

White said she thinks Taser use data should be reported biweekly.

The Taser law also asks the board to study whether Taser-toting officers should wear body cameras and asks the board to write a policy for how to calibrate and test the devices.

Some say the stun guns sometimes accidentally shoot out too much, or too little, electricity. A quote from manufacturer Taser International put the cost of equipment needed to test Taser calibration at $10,858, according to minutes from the last LEAB meeting.

There are 20 police departments that use body cameras, according to information sent to LEAB from Taser International. They include Winooski, Burlington, Barre and Hartford police as well as several sheriff's departments and other agencies.

State Police have cameras on their cruisers but not on their person. Col. Tom L'Esperance said he is exploring the idea of using body cameras but cautioned that it would be expensive.


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