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Debating Stun Guns: Vermont A.G. Holds Hearing

  • A.J. Ruben, attorney for Disability Rights Vermont, speaks during a public forum on stun gun use in the Pavilion Building in Montpelier yesterday. “Should there be standards for Tasers?” he asked. “What should those standards be?”  (Valley News - Libby March)

    A.J. Ruben, attorney for Disability Rights Vermont, speaks during a public forum on stun gun use in the Pavilion Building in Montpelier yesterday. “Should there be standards for Tasers?” he asked. “What should those standards be?” (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Donna Youngblood of Montpelier, Vt. listens during a public forum regarding tasers in the Pavilion Building in Montpelier yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Donna Youngblood of Montpelier, Vt. listens during a public forum regarding tasers in the Pavilion Building in Montpelier yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A.J. Ruben, attorney for Disability Rights Vermont, speaks during a public forum on stun gun use in the Pavilion Building in Montpelier yesterday. “Should there be standards for Tasers?” he asked. “What should those standards be?”  (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Donna Youngblood of Montpelier, Vt. listens during a public forum regarding tasers in the Pavilion Building in Montpelier yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March)

During a forum hosted by Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell yesterday, advocates for the mentally ill urged law enforcement agencies to limit scenarios in which stun guns can be fired and to increase oversight of the weapons.

Mentally ill people, who sometimes struggle to understand police commands and have underlying health problems that may make them especially vulnerable to the electrical charge from a stun gun, have too often been targeted by police Tasers when officers were not threatened, several officials told a panel that included Sorrell, lawmakers and other experts.

“We are concerned that Tasers are used regularly against individuals with disabilities when that individual does not pose a legitimate, imminent threat of harm to anyone,” said A.J. Ruben, attorney for Disability Rights Vermont, during a panel discussion. “Many people with disabilities look at the Taser with great fear. It is a torture device for many people and they look at the police officer as somebody who is going to inflict pain on them because they aren’t cooperating or not doing what they are being told to do.”

Organized by Sorrell in the aftermath of the death last summer of Thetford resident Macadam Mason, a mentally ill man who died after a Vermont State police trooper fired a Taser at him, the forum drew a varied crowd, including legislators, law enforcement and independent advocacy groups.

Many were sharply critical of current police practices and state officials, some of whom were sitting in the room.

“It is clear to me that the governor hasn’t taken Taser training very seriously, and it’s clear to me that the attorney general hasn’t either, nor has the Legislature,” said Jeff Dworkin, a lawyer and psychologist who led a citizen committee that decided against arming Montpelier police with stun guns. “It took (Mason’s) tragic death to get the conversation going in any serious way.”

Current standards, under which police are generally allowed to deploy stun guns when they encounter “active resistance” are “flimsy,” Dworkin said, and leave officers too much leeway. Instead, officers should be permitted to fire the weapons only when they or the public are under a serious threat of imminent harm, Dworkin said.

But law enforcement experts told the panel that stun guns have helped reduce injuries to both officers and the public,

Walter Decker, a retired deputy police chief in Burlington, said he was initially skeptical of outfitting officers with Tasers. But the weapons have repeatedly been demonstrated to make belligerent subjects back down as soon as officers brandish them, he said.

“When you display that device, that immediately changes the behavior of combative subjects,” Decker said.

Prior adopting use of stun guns, the Burlington Police Department averaged two or three officers a year who were forced to take medical leave after suffering injuries from “wrestling with combative subjects,” Decker said. After the department bought Tasers, Decker said, that incidents fell to zero

“It makes the police officer safe and it makes the subject safe because it gets them into custody,” Decker said.

Vermont State Police Sgt. Hugh O’Donnell, based at the Bradford barracks, told the panel that since 2011, Vermont State Police have been involved in more than 110,000 cases. In 80 cases, troopers displayed Tasers. In 70 cases, troopers fired the weapons. (Together, that represents less than one percent of cases.) O’Donnell later fired a Taser at a cardboard dummy.

The forum comes as the House Government Operations Committee weighs a bill that would increase training for officers who must confront a mentally unstable person, and allow officers to fire Tasers only when lethal force would be justified.

The committee’s chairwoman, state Rep. Donna Sweaney of Windsor, sat in the audience for the entire panel. In an interview afterward, she said she was concerned about repeated use of stun guns against the mentally ill, but was unsure if the bill would make it out of her committee this year.

Sorrell said that he intended the public comment to operate on a “parallel track,” to any legislative action. He is accepting written feedback from the public over the next several days.

Last June, State Police responded to the home that Mason, 39, and Theresa Davidonis shared on Sawnee Bean Road in Thetford after Mason called Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center “threatening to harm and kill himself and others,” the State Police said after the incident. Davidonis convinced police to leave, but they eventually returned.

State Police have said that Shaffer ordered Mason to lie on his stomach on the ground. Instead, “Mason stood up and moved toward the Trooper with a closed fist yelling aggressively,” State Police said in a statement.

Shaffer fired his Taser and hit Mason in the chest, police said.

Davidonis and her son, Aleks, who also witnessed the shooting, have said that Mason never threatened the troopers. Rather, they say, Mason put his hands up in a surrender position, with his palms facing outward. He made two steps toward Shaffer — the ground he was on sloped down toward the trooper — and said, “Go ahead and shoot me.”

Mason had suffered a brain seizure the night before, information Davidonis says she shared with police before the fatal encounter.

“I said, ‘Don’t Taser him. You’ll kill him,’ ” Davidonis previously told the Valley News. “They looked at me and shot him right in the chest. I watched the barbs. I watched the eyes roll back in his head. I just want people to know they were told. They were warned. ”

A DHMC doctor told the Valley News that, because of the seizure he suffered the night before, Mason may have been unable to understand Shaffer’s commands. The New Hampshire Medical Examiner’s Office, which conducted the autopsy, ruled that the Taser strike caused Mason’s death.

In January, Sorrell cleared Shaffer of criminal wrongdoing, saying the law allows officers to use “reasonable” force when they believe they are in immediate danger of harm. That decision has been met with some criticism.

Yesterday, with Sorrell looking on, attorney Robert Appel, former head of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said the attorney general should have charged Shaffer with manslaughter, which generally requires a finding that a person acted with a “reckless disregard” for human life.

Mason had “no credibly capacity to hurt,” Appel said.

“I question the decision. Given what I know of the matter, it would seem that the officer knew or should have known of the mental health issues,” Appel continued. “There was no weapon. It would seem a reckless disregard that would result in injury or death.”

Sorrell did not respond to the comment.

Police can currently deploy a Taser when a subject is engaged in “active resistance,” which can include running away from officers.

“If I tell somebody they’re under arrest and they stand there, that’s not active resistance,” O’Donnell said. “If they pull away from me after I told them they are under arrest, that’s active resistance.”

In Vermont, people have been shot with a stun gun while refusing to leave a convenience store and while being treated inside an inpatient psychiatric unit; in one instance, a developmentally disabled boy wearing only his underwear was shot with a Taser inside his bedroom, Ruben said. State police have instituted training in both use of Tasers and dealing with the mentally ill, largely because of pressure applied after incidents of wrongdoing, he said.

“Don’t think for a minute that happened because state police deemed it was the right time to make it happen,” Ruben said.

Activist Morgan Brown, who crafted an unsuccessful petition that urged authorities to impose a moratorium on Taser use, stood outside the forum yesterday holding a sign that read “Tasers are Deadly Weapons.”

Brown said that he initially planned to boycott the hearing, calling it a “dog and pony show,” before deciding to make a brief statement.

“Macadam Mason should be alive and he’s dead because a Taser was used,” Brown said. “My blood boils. It’s not okay to justify Tasers, and to justify law enforcement using a Taser on Macadam Mason.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.