Vermont lawmakers step into debate on Taser policy


MONTPELIER -- Controversy has swirled in the past month in the Statehouse over how to regulate Tasers, the stun guns police use to subdue people and that in 2012 killed a Thetford man who suffered from mental health issues.

Law enforcement and Taser opponents disagree on whether Tasers save lives or threaten them. They agree, however, that Vermont needs a statewide policy and training for police on how to use the weapons.

The ACLU said a current Taser policy proposal does nothing more than codify existing practice. The CEO of the company that manufactures the weapon said Tasers are so safe he worries police are using them too frequently.

In Vermont, however, use of Tasers by State Police has declined from 80 uses in 2011 to 36 in 2013, authorities told lawmakers last week.

Vermont has no statewide training requirements or policy for deploying electronic control devices, the generic name for Tasers, which is one brand. Many officers only receive training from the manufacturer.

Meanwhile, approximately half of law enforcement officers carry Tasers, according to Rick Gauthier, executive director of the Criminal Justice Training Council and chair of the state's Law Enforcement Advisory Board.

Tasers, also known as conducted electrical weapons, are pistol-shaped weapons that fire two probes into a person, deliver a strong shock that causes full-body muscle contraction. The weapon can also be pressed against a person causing pain without muscle contraction.

Since the death of MacAdam Lee Mason in June 2012, who was shot in the chest by a state trooper and died, the Law Enforcement Advisory Board (LEAB,) which advises government officials and the Legislature on law enforcement issues, has been developing a model policy.

Back to the drafting board

That draft policy, however, rankled many, including mental health advocates and the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It is now being revised with input from a series of public hearings.

"Please don't tell me that a Taser is not a lethal weapon," Rhonda Taylor, Mason's mother, told LEAB members at a hearing last week in the Statehouse.

Taylor asked for strict training and testing to make sure Tasers work properly before they're fired at people.

"Vermont has the opportunity to set a precedent that will be applauded and followed by all other states," she said. She ended her public comments by saying "there are many days that I would trade the rest of my life for one minute with my son."

At the same time LEAB is redrafting a policy, lawmakers are considering a bill, H.225, which was filed last year and asks the Department of Public Safety to establish a statewide policy on the training and use of electronic control devices.

The bill asks the Criminal Justice Training Council to ensure that officers receive appropriate training, beyond that from the manufacturer, before they are issued a Taser. It also asks the council to coordinate training with the Department of Mental Health in order to better understand how to respond to mental health emergencies.

The bill also lists the circumstances in which an officer may deploy a Taser.

It says an officer may deploy a Taser in response to an "actively resistant subject if there is reason to believe that using another compliance technique will result in a greater risk of injury to the officer, the subject, or a third party."

In addition, use of a Taser must be "in response to an assaultive subject when lethal force does not appear to be objectively reasonable."

Neither an officer nor another person has to suffer an injury before an officer is permitted to use a Taser, the bill says. However, it recommends officers attempt to de-escalate the situation first by talking to and warning a person before firing a Taser.

Tasers should not "be used in a punitive or coercive manner," the bill states.

In addition, officers should be aware of potential additional risks that can result from situations in which people have "cognitive disabilities or are in emotional crises that interfere with the ability to understand consequences of action," the bill states.

That language is nearly identical to that of the LEAB draft policy, except that the policy includes two other justified situations in which a Taser can be used: to prevent someone from committing suicide or to deter aggressive animals that threaten the officer or others.

The LEAB policy also says officers should attempt to avoid shooting a person's head, neck, chest, genitals, a female's breast or the stomach of a pregnant woman.

Lawmakers are now weighing how to reconcile the bill and the LEAB policy. House Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, last week made it clear she wants her committee to vote on the bill before crossover.

The committee will likely draft a bill that instructs LEAB to include certain requirements in the policy, Sweaney said. Putting the entire LEAB policy into law would make it more difficult to change in the future, she said.

Sweaney also said she wants to make sure the policy includes enough mental health training for officers.

"I want to make sure we have breadth of the mental health piece," she said.

Taser safety

Rick Smith, CEO of Taser International, the company who makes the most well-known brand of the stun guns, flew in from Arizona last month to talk to the committee about the weapons.

Smith said Tasers reduce the number of times an officer has to use a gun or even a kick or a punch. Those types of force often result in more injuries, he said.

Two people are injured for every 1,000 Taser uses in the field, Smith said, citing a Department of Defense study that examined 15,000 randomly collected Taser uses from police departments across the country. He said the rate of death is about 1 in 10,000.

Smith also talked about testing the electrical current output by Tasers. New Tasers have oscilloscopes inside them that store information every time they are fired and adjusts output the next time, he said.

Smith said his concern is not that Tasers don't function properly, but that because the risk of injury is so low that they are being overused. Training by Taser International teaches officers not to become Taser-dependent, he said.

"The thing we really start to worry about is overuse," Smith said.

Smith said cameras are an effective way to cut down on abuse. Some Tasers have cameras mounted on them. Other officers wear cameras on their person.

Officers in Rialto, Calif., used force 60 percent fewer times when they had cameras watching them, Smith said. It also cut down 90 percent on the number of complaints against officers, he said.

"We think video becomes a behavior modifier," he said.

On average, a Taser is deployed once every two years, he said. There are about 600,000 Tasers deployed around the world in more than 17,000 police departments, he said.

Enforcing the policy

Lack of data about Taser use has also been a frustration for many in Vermont who want to know more about how state and local police are using stun guns.

The bill before the Government Operations Committee includes a reporting requirement, asking the Attorney General's Office to report annually to the Legislature all incidents involving the use of Tasers as well as information about training and whether there is adequate funding for mental health collaboration.

Another question in the debate over Taser regulation is who could enforce a policy once it is drawn up. The Department of Public Safety only has jurisdiction over state police and LEAB cannot set mandates for local agencies. Sweaney said that's why there needs to be a law.

"Only the Legislature can mandate this," she said.

The bill charges the Criminal Justice Training Council with making sure officers are trained. The council has developed a Taser certification course, which addresses mental health issues, but is waiting to implement it until the policy formation process plays out, Gauthier said.

The council could keep track of whether departments have a policy by adding a checkbox on an annual training report form they already submit, Gauthier said.

The American Civil Liberties Union last week said the LEAB draft policy is inadequate because it codifies existing practice instead of creating better standards. ACLU of Vermont Executive Director Allen Gilbert proposed four changes.

Gilbert said videocameras should be used in conjunction with Tasers. The policy should also mandate Taser testing using more than the simple "spark test," to make sure they function properly. Independent local panels should review all Taser incidents, he said.

When officers report Taser incidents, they should include the sex, age, race, height, weight and other physical attributions of the victim to help prevent profiling, Gilbert said.

"It can benefit no one when a weapon is used inappropriately -- or when the weapon isn't functioning within proper specifications, or when the officer hasn't received training that shows how it is possible to de-escalate rather than escalate use of force in tense situations," Gilbert said in the written version of his testimony.

State Police this week told lawmakers Tasers are a boon to law enforcement in the field.

"These tools save lives, there's no two ways about it," said Col. Tom L'Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, also acknowledging "this is a real emotional subject."

The drop in Taser use is thanks to better training and a focus on de-escalation tactics, he said.

"We learned over time that verbal communication can de-escalate better than anything," L'Esperance said.

In 2011, when Tasers were first put into use, there were 80 uses, he said. That number includes 32 deployments and 48 incidents in which an officer only displayed the Taser and threatened to fire, he said.

In 2012 there were 62 total uses and in 2013 there were 36 total uses, including 15 deployments and the rest displays. In 2014, there have been three deployments and no displays, he said.

State Police support the LEAB draft policy and also a policy they already have, which was revised in 2013 with input from disabilities rights advocates after a Taser deployment in the Northeast Kingdom, L'Esperance said.

More than 100 pages of feedback about the draft policy are posted on the attorney general's website.

"We've heard all the concerns that (the ACLU) expressed and that other presenters expressed," Gauthier said. He said he could not say whether any changes will be incorporated into the new policy.

Another public LEAB hearing is scheduled for Derby in March and one in Bennington is in the works, he said.


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