Taser Death Spurs Vermont Bill
A photo of taser victim Macadam Mason stands outside a room on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. A group of Vermont lawmakers and the heads of disability and civil rights groups are pushing legislation that would create new rules governing police use of electronic stun guns. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Rep. James Masland, D-Thetford, speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. A group of Vermont lawmakers and the heads of disability and civil rights groups are pushing legislation that would create new rules governing police use of electronic stun guns. They held a news conference on Tuesday to unveil a bill that would set up statewide training and rules for law enforcement officers using Tasers and similar devices.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Montpelier — A group of Vermont legislators yesterday proposed a law that would dramatically restrict police use of stun guns and increase training for officers who must confront a mentally unstable person, arguing that the death of Thetford man shot by a police Taser last year could have been prevented with better regulations.
More than 30 members of the Vermont House of Representatives sponsored a bill that advocates said is a direct response to the “needless” death of Macadam Mason, an unarmed, mentally ill man who died after a Vermont State Police Trooper shot him with a stun gun when they ordered him to surrender at his home in Thetford last June.
“A Taser is less lethal than a gun, (but) it is not a non-lethal piece of equipment,” Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said during a Statehouse news conference yesterday. “If lethal force is justified, it is an excellent alternative, but it should not be taken as a non-risk producing weapon. If this protocol has been in place, (Mason’s) death would not have happened.”
Donahue drafted the bill with Thetford Rep. Jim Masland, a neighbor and friend of Mason. At the time of his death, Mason was unarmed and had suffered a seizure the day before that, an expert told the Valley News, may have affected his cognitive abilities.
“Those of us who knew him fairly well were thunderstruck by his death,” Masland, a Democrat, said of Mason. “He was kind of a teddy bear, and had some mental issues that caused him to act irregularly on the day of this event. If the protocols that were in place that day were followed, they were clearly the wrong protocols. His death was completely unnecessary, and I personally don’t think he was a (threat) to anybody.”
The bill would:
■ Develop statewide protocols on police stun-gun use, and mandate that all police officers working in Vermont would have to complete training before carrying a stun-gun. Currently, only new officers going through the police academy are required to have the training.
■ Mandate that stun guns be used only in situations that would justify lethal force. Currently, the weapons are described by police as “less lethal,” and can be used when an officer fears he faces a bodily threat. The bill would allow the officer to fire the weapon only if they feared their life to be in danger, similar to restrictions on the use of a firearm.
■ Require authorities to submit an annual report to the Legislature, documenting and describing incidents in which police fired stun guns.
Advocates of the bill said that police had not been consulted in drafting the proposed legislation, and have not signed off on any of its key points.
Vermont State Police spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.
The four-page bill will be sent to the House Government Operations Committee, whose chairwoman, Windsor Democrat Donna Sweaney, has pledged to “take it up very aggressively,” Donahue said.
The bill also mandates that mental health professionals have a role in training police how to negotiate with a mentally disturbed person. Currently, bill advocates say, training for law enforcement in the state is inconsistent and often inadequate.
For example, Vermont State Police officers currently going through the police academy are required to receive training in both effective stun gun use and dealing with mentally ill individuals. But troopers who already graduated from the academy, or were trained outside the state, are not required to undergo all of the training: Trooper David Shaffer, who shot Mason, had not completed the mental health training section at the time of the incident — he graduated from the academy shortly before it was required.
Vermont State Police in recent years have pledged to provide that training to more officers, but that work is incomplete, the bill’s sponsors said. And the standards are just as fuzzy for local police officers: New officers go through the police academy and receive the training, officials said yesterday, but older officers have no such requirements.
Additionally, there is no uniform policy for police use of force in Vermont: Each agency — whether it’s state troopers or local police departments — has its own rules.
The bill would change that, at least partially, and mandate that stun guns be characterized as weapons capable of deploying “lethal force,” allowing them to be fired only in the most dangerous of situations.
Ed Paquin , president of non-profit agency Disabilities Rights Vermont, said his agency believes that police have often misused stun guns against the mentally ill, firing them simply to secure compliance, and not to prevent imminent harm.
“There is no way the public can analyze how effective the Taser is used in Vermont because no records are kept,” Paquin said. “There is no transparent, quality assurance that allows the public to believe that if an officer uses a Taser in an inappropriate fashion, there will be consequences for that officer.”
Last month, Vermont Attorney Bill Sorrell cleared the officer who shot Mason of criminal wrongdoing, saying the law allows officers to use “reasonable” force when they believe they are in immediate danger of harm.
Yesterday, Masland said that he was “disappointed,” in Sorrell’s ruling, and believes that Sorrell did not adequately investigate the events.
“I think there’s more to it than what we got from that office,” Masland said.
Upper Valley lawmakers who co-sponsored the bill include Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, Lawrence Townsend, D-Randolph, and Teo Zagar, D-Barnard.
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Thursday, Feb. 14 edition of the Valley News.
A quote from Ed Paquin, president of Disabilities Rights Vermont, in a story in Wednesday's Valley News should have read, “There is no transparent, quality assurance that allows the public to believe that if an officer uses a Taser in an inappropriate fashion, there will be consequences for that officer.” Additionally, state Rep. Anne Donahue of Northfield is a Republican. Her party affiliation was listed incorrectly in the same story.