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Editorial: Forum on Stun Guns; Discussion Highlights Problems

A forum earlier this week in Montpelier on the use of stun guns by police did nothing to alter our conviction that these devices pose a particular risk to the mentally ill and disabled and that Vermont lawmakers ought to place sharp restrictions on their use.

Representatives of advocacy groups said that these weapons, formally known as electronic control devices, are used far too often against people whose disabilities may make it difficult to understand and respond to police commands; who present little risk to themselves and others; and whose underlying health problems may put them at risk of suffering catastrophic consequences from a Taser strike.

This was indeed the case last summer when a Thetford man was killed by a Taser fired in disputed circumstances by a state police trooper during a confrontation at his home. The victim, Macadam Mason, had suffered a seizure the previous evening that a doctor later said might have impaired his ability to mentally process the trooper’s commands.

The forum, sponsored by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, also heard from, among others, Walter Decker, retired deputy police chief of Burlington, who said that merely displaying a Taser is highly effective in persuading combative subjects to immediately back down. Police in Burlington have thus avoided injuries that used to occur several times a year in wrestling with agitated suspects, he said.

At the same time, Vermont State Police Sgt. Hugh O’Donnell reported that troopers displayed but did not fire Tasers 80 times since 2011 and displayed and fired the weapons in another 70 cases during that time. It’s hard to know what to make of these two accounts. At the minimum, it would appear that suspects in Burlington are capable of exercising better judgment when confronted with a Taser-wielding officer than the ones encountered by state police. Or are Burlington officers trained differently, or do they operate under different guidelines for Taser use?

As staff writer Mark Davis reported Tuesday, police are allowed to deploy a Taser when a subject is engaged in “active resistance,” the definition of which is sufficiently elastic to include the act of running away, or even moving away, from officers after being told one is under arrest. Given the potentially lethal consequences of a Taser strike, restricting their use to situations where a suspect presents a risk of imminent harm to himself or others would be a far better standard. In fact, legislation now before the House would specifically rule out the use of Tasers primarily to subdue a suspect or gain compliance. It would limit their use to circumstances under which police would be justified in using lethal force, or when a suspect presents an imminent risk of killing himself.

It would also be valuable for the state to commission a detailed study of the 70 incidents in which Tasers have been fired by troopers, with an eye to determining whether the sequence of events that preceded their discharge comported with standard escalation-of-force protocols, beginning with attempts to calmly defuse the situation and moving through verbal commands, a light touch, physical guidance such as pushing or clasping, and so on. That might provide a sound basis for providing police officers with the training they need to avoid further tragedies and the mentally ill with the opportunity they deserve to be safe.