Governor defends police Taser use; group calls for moratorium

Despite calls for a temporary ban on the use of Tasers in Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin today stood firm in his attitude on the use of the devices by Vermont law enforcement officers.

“The notion that we stop using Tasers in Vermont I think would result in police officers having to use bullets more than Taser shots, and that’s not such a great idea,” Shumlin said at a press conference Wednesday.

A group made up of citizen advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mental Health Law Project, and state representatives proposed a moratorium on Taser use by Vermont law enforcement until policies and procedures can be updated to meet their requirements, including the premise that Tasers should only be used in situations where lethal force would also be justified.

The group held its own press conference Wednesday morning to unveil its proposal.

Shumlin said a ban on Tasers would only increase the use of firearms by police, increasing the risk of harm to suspects.

The statements come a week to the day after the death of 39-year-old Macadam Mason of Thetford, who died after being Tasered by Vermont State Police Trooper David Shaffer, at his home. The death has sparked debate about the potential dangers of Taser use by law enforcement.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Shumlin defended state police, calling questions from the press about the incident inappropriate.

Jack McCullough of the Mental Health Law Project speaks about Taser use by law enforcement as Allen Gilbert of the ACLU looks on. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Jack McCullough of the Mental Health Law Project speaks about Taser use by law enforcement as Allen Gilbert of the ACLU looks on. VTD/Taylor Dobbs

“Listen, team: We’ve got an investigation going on and we’re not going to go into the details until they come out,” Shumlin said. “This is what I want to say: You go out there as a law enforcement officer, have someone threaten to kill you, threaten to kill other people, and then second-guess every move they make when they make them. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Asked if the Tasering of someone with a history of seizures or other health issues was questionable, Shumlin stopped a reporter mid-question.

“So what are the state police supposed to do, get a medical records check before they use a Taser?” he asked.

State police policy says, “Special consideration must be given to special populations that may be more susceptible to injury from [Taser] use, including but not limited to: the elderly, children, and those who the officer has reason to believe are in ill health or are pregnant.”

Witnesses close to Mason said officers were told he had epilepsy and had suffered a seizure the evening before his death.

Advocates, in their statement, proposed a civilian body “to review specific Taser use and other incidents of deadly force.” They suggest law enforcement investigations aren’t transparent enough and also that law enforcement officers investigating other officers may not be able to do so objectively.

However, advocates proposing a moratorium conceded that the events leading to Mason’s death were not easy for the officers involved either.

“I also want to stress, we’re not criticizing specific officers here,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of ACLU Vermont. “Police in this state have an incredibly difficult job. It’s become more difficult because of any number of circumstances. One is I think what we experienced last week when police were the ones who ended up dealing with a person who was in a mental health crisis, and increasingly – I know you hear this from police in Burlington … police have become the people of last resort who have to deal with people who need mental health counseling.”

Currently, an internal investigation is under way examining last week’s incident. The New Hampshire medical examiner is awaiting autopsy test results before stating Mason’s official cause of death.

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Comments

  1. Bud Haas :

    The Governor is wrong on this one. He needs to look at the bigger picture.
    It is time for Vermont to recognize that the Vermont State Police are not good for a) Mountain rescues, and b) Mental health rescues.
    The legislature should set up an agency to effect mountain and other physical type outdoor rescues, and set up a mental health rescue team, apart from the state police to deal with disturbed individuals without guns, or tasers.
    The State Police may be the ones to call, but in these cases, not the ones to be the first responders.
    How many more people will be shot by police before the state changes it’s policies?

  2. Randy Koch :

    Shumlin poses a no-brainer question, then gets the answer wrong: of course the cops should consider the medical condition of a citizen before electrocuting him. But why in the first place should it be a choice between frying a suspect or shooting him with bullets? Isn’t Shumlin really green-lighting the casual use of tasers? He should be insisting that the police use their heads first and weapons only exceptionally.

  3. Christian Noll :

    The police aren’t really trained to prevent Taser use, but rather to promote their USE at every possible chance they can.

    The vast number of police misconduct incidents involving tasers is growing rapidly. It seems typical that a governor would blindly side with the state police.

    Hey Gov Shum, no question regarding any death and the circumstances thereof, especially involving the police and their weapons is “inappropriate” ever.

    What are you trying to hide?

    The use of the word “Investigation” is exactly how we prevent transparancy in this state. When people die, people ask questions.

    Yes, we need a separate, unattached, unrelated, civilian body to overlook the police incidents involving tasers and any other potentially deadly weapons police use.

    SHAME ON SHUM !

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=is3oHQTs2CU&NR=1

  4. Peter Harvey :

    I am missing vital information. Is this as rare I hope it is or has it become acceptable common practice? I have watched videos of a Taser salesman demonstrate the “safety” of his product by stunning himself, but people do a lot to themselves that I don’t consider safe or healthy. When the police use bullets they need to file reports. When the police use Tasers do they need to file reports about that also? How many times have Vermont police used bullets in the last 12 months and how many times have Vermont police used Tasers in the last 12 months?

    • Taylor Dobbs :

      Peter,

      When Vermont State Police unholster their Taser in the line of duty, they are required to file a report even if they do not fire it. Last year, State Police used their Tasers on subjects 32 times. So far this year, they have used them 16 times.

      I do not have information immediately available on State Police use of firearms, but I hope this has helped answer some of your questions.

  5. I worked for Shumlin’s election but I believe he is dead wrong on this. He’s shooting from the hip and encouraging police to do the same while discouraging the public and the press from asking legitimate questions.

  6. Luci Stephens :

    My understanding (from the initial press coverage) is that Mr. Mason was threatening the officer’s person. It currently appears to me (based on that coverage) that the officer acted, as he was obligated and trained, in accordance with established policy and procedure. My heart goes out to Mr. Mason’s family and friends.

    My heart goes out equally to the involved officer, his family and friends, and to his brethren in law enforcement. Our legal/ social demands of law enforcement relative to persons with mental health issues who behave in ways that require law enforcement intervention are beyond reason and resources. We set this in motion many years ago when we closed our care institutions and have since been unable or unwilling to provide for the unintended consequences of those whose acting-out was dangerous. We put it in the hands of law enforcement and most of our interventions since then have left it there. Now, another in a long line of real ‘flesh and blood’ persons in uniform has to deal with the very painful aftermath of having been forced, by sworn duty, to engage in an action that may have led to the death of another.

    To suggest that law enforcement immediately forgo use of a generally non-lethal and reasonably effective tool before we know all of the facts makes no sense. It makes sense and seems correct to do as Governor Shumlin states… let the investigation take its course. The rest of us are not experts and do not have access to all of the relevant facts and information.

    I would be heartened and optimistic for some momentum toward effective policy changes were the terrible burden law enforcement so often faces relative to mental health interventions to receive a reasonable fraction of the media, advocacy group, and general public attention as the outrage, accusations and ‘prescriptive solutions’ now being so widely dispensed.

    • Karl Riemer :

      Cogent and exceptionally well-thought out comments.
      De-institutionalization of non-violent mental patients wasn’t a casual decision, there were good reasons behind it, but there have inevitably been significant consequences. However, it isn’t clear that that’s pertinent to this case. Would epilepsy and disorientation have landed Mr. Mason in WSH in the old days?
      And I’d like to mention a qualitative difference between firearms and electronic weapons: police shoot bullets when imminent danger to themselves or others requires it. That means their target has a weapon and apparent intention to use it. Time is of the essence and the use of deadly force is designed to disable as quickly and completely as possible, meaning aim for the center of mass and assume (not try for, but accept real possibility of) fatal consequences. Tasers are explicitly designed not to kill so should never be aimed at brain, eyes, chest or groin. Because of this they’re not a sure stopper of homicidal intent when fractions of a seconds count so their use is generally restricted to unarmed or ineffectively armed people who refuse to follow police instructions. They offer a huge safety advantage in allowing police to subdue and apprehend combative people without having to wrestle with them, and regardless of the odds people are often hurt in hand-to-hand combat, rarely hurt by Tasers.
      In other words, despite the mantra intoned most recently by the governor, the alternative to Tasers is practically never bullets, it’s batons. That doesn’t make Tasers an inappropriate alternative, but claiming that the alternative to Tasers is deadly force is disingenuous at best.
      Stipulating the value of Tasers in combative situations, the perceived problem has nothing to do with those situations. The perceived problem has to do with the use of Tasers when police pose the only danger, when the alternative to Tasers is to back off. The reason Tasers are blamed is because police have a difficult time backing off. They expect their instructions to be obeyed regardless of whether any crime is even suspected. Why and whether that should be so is another discussion but Tasers have fundamentally altered the decision process by offering a supposedly benign temporarily incapacitating force, offering police something between conversation and violence for enforcing their authority: they now have electronic coercion.
      In other words, the perception (and I want to stress it is only at this point a perception) is that Tasers have sometimes been used rather than discretion, diplomacy or strategic retreat, not casually but imprudently. Given that Tasers are not entirely benign (depending on a whole host of variables) that perception is the basis of a legitimate desire for greater reluctance to use them.
      The governor’s response was (characteristically) flippant and facile.

    • Christian Noll :

      Luci thanks.

      Out of all your posts in the past, I have to say that I disagree with yours here the most.

      Wayne Burwell wasn’t “Mentally ill.” In fact he was in his own up stairs bathroom naked when tased by the Hartford police. Anne Galloway (editor of vtdigger) had to sue the town just to get public documentation on this incident which was similar to the Rod Mayo case where police officers AGAIN did not recognize the all too familiar signs of diabetic shock. Did you see the Rod Mayo Tape? How do you feel about it?

      These are just two of many similar cases that are begining to multiply in our state.

      Saying that we should let the “investigation” take it’s course when in fact its the police, “investigating” the police is REALLY putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

      As it stands now, we allow the police to “investigate” their own misconduct or misconduct which either resulted in bodily harm or death.

      IF the police, either state or local are not prepared nor qualified to handel mentally ill individuals OR individuals who are in the state of diabetic shock, THEN THEY SHOULD NOT DO SO. Period.

      The proof is in the pudding. The pudding shows an alarming increase in the past fifteen years in the amount of incidents with Vermont police where either the use of Tasers or Live Leathal Weapons has resulted in the loss of life and or the Civil Liberties of our own peaceful tax payers.

      The police “investigating” the police?

      Are you serious?

      Our governor IS WRONG here. period. I would guess he’s trying to procure votes for the next election.

      We need a separate, unattached, unrelated, civilian oversight committee to scrutinize the police AND corrections where these types of results materialize.

  7. David Dempsey :

    I think that tasers, just like a firearm, are an important tool for police officers if used appropriately. The taser should be used when the officer thinks deadly force is needed and can use the taser instead of the firearm to handle the situation. In this case, the officers were told that Mr. Mason had an epileptic seizure the day before and that this was not unusual behavior for him following a seizure. When the two officers approached Mr. Mason, they could see that he was unarmed and they put down their firearms. If they felt that deadly force was needed, why did they put the weapons down. In this case, it’s not the equipment that’s bad, it’s the operator.
    As for Shumlin’s comments, his mouth works much faster than his brain, no surpise there.

  8. For those who support the call for a moratorium on Tasers in Vermont, please consider signing onto this petition as well as spread the word to anyone else who might be interested in doing the same:

    Call for Moratorium on Tasers in Vermont:
    http://signon.org/sign/call-for-moratorium-on.fb10?source=c.fb&r_by=196191

    Thank you in advance.

    • Christian Noll :

      Morgan thanks.
      Done. Sent it to everybody.

      • You’re welcome Christian.

        Thank you! Much appreciated.

        Morgan

  9. Patrick Cashman :

    This point keeps coming up frequently, but the Taser is not a replacement for deadly force. If an officer is in such a dangerous and life threatening position that deadly force is called for, then he/she should apply deadly force. The Taser is a replacement for other less than lethal (but in some cases potentially lethal) measures such as a night stick, pepper spray, or an officer having to wrestle a crazed individual to the ground. The Taser offers a greater degree of separation and therefore safety for the officer. As municipal employees it is the town’s/state’s responsibility to provide their employees as safe a workplace as is reasonably possible, and for police officers Taser are part of that. It’s odd that the safety of the officers called to resolve this situation has not been an aspect of the discussion.

  10. Christian Noll :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H20cedylQAo&feature=related

    Since OC or Pepper Spray is used in the training at the Vermont Police academy for all recruits to get “Hosed Down.”

    I think they should do the same with Tasers in their training at the academy.

    A healthy 30 second dose for each recruit. Those who survive get to graduate from the academy. Those who don’t, don’t get to graduate.

  11. Christian Noll :

    Campaign Against the Taser

  12. Amanda Preston :

    Refusing to ban the use of tasers is especially irresponsible when Vermont is one of highest states in the nation for reported cases of police misconduct. Nation-wide, excessive use of force is the most frequently cited cause of police misconduct. Vermont is third in the nation for LOWEST PERCENTAGE PROSECUTION RATE for police misconduct. In other words, Shumlin says, “tase them,” and Sorrell just looks the other way. Not a pleasant state of affairs if you ask me. Advocate for change, people. This is still America! Statistics taken from the Cato Institute Police Misconduct Reporting Project: http://www.policemisconduct.net/2010-npmsrp-police-misconduct-statistical-report/

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