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.
“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.