A proposed policy on governing police use of Tasers does not go far enough to reduce the risk of serious injury or protect law enforcement agencies from liability, the head of ACLU of Vermont says.
A draft policy (attached below) on the use of “Conducted Electrical Weapons” was released Nov. 12 by a subcommittee of the Public Safety Department’s Law Enforcement Advisory Board. The public comment period on the proposal ends Wednesday and the board will meet Dec. 23 to consider the policy.
The policy proposal, requested by Attorney General Bill Sorrell, is the result of an effort to establish statewide minimum standards for the use of the devices in the wake of the June 2012 death of Macadam Mason, 39, who was hit with a Taser by a Vermont state trooper during an incident at Mason’s home in Thetford. The death was ruled a homicide but no charges were filed against the officer. A civil lawsuit was filed by the victim’s family.
The draft policy recommends that all officers receive training and establishes guidelines for when and against whom the devices should be deployed, but it leaves whether to adopt some, all or none of the policy up to individual departments.
“The draft appears to do little more than codify the existing practice,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of ACLU of Vermont. “Generally, it was our expectation that this would be a statewide minimum standard that all agencies were required to adopt.”
The draft policy permits the use of Tasers in cases in which the officer perceives that the situation carries the risk of physical injury to the suspect, the officer or a bystander. The ACLU has maintained that Tasers be used only in cases in which deadly force is justified, a higher standard than the policy suggests.
The policy also identifies people against whom the device should not be used and issues guidelines on which areas of the body should be targeted.
The proposal says the device should not be used against suspects who are: “Cognitively impaired such that they are unable to comply with an officer’s instructions; operating a motor vehicle; standing in an elevated area, near water, or near flammable materials (including but not limited to alcohol-based chemical sprays); restrained; minors; pregnant; elderly; or inflicted with a heart conditions.” (sic)
However, these special conditions do not apply if the officer determines that the suspect’s behavior risks physical injury to himself, the officer or someone else.
The proposal also does not insist that Taser incidents be reviewed in a standardized fashion, but recommends that agencies “should refine these provisions of this policy according to their size, existing policies, and the needs of the communities they serve.”
“The review mechanism is insufficient and nothing is really going to change as the result of this proposal,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert also said establishing a statewide policy would give law enforcement agencies clear guidelines that could limit their liability exposure in cases involving Taser use.
Cindy Maguire, an assistant attorney general and a member of the board, said the proposal was meant to be an advisory to lawmakers, advocates and law enforcement agencies.
“The board doesn’t have the legal authority to mandate,” Maguire said. “We were acting on a request from the attorney general to consider drafting a statewide policy on the use of Tasers. The board opted to put its recommendations out to comment so advocates and law enforcement could respond.”
She said the board’s final report could change as a result of the comment period.
The policy recommendation, which will be presented to lawmakers in January, could also serve to inform a legislative solution.
A bill, H.225, which would create a unified Taser training and deployment policy, is in committee and could emerge during the 2014 session.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, one of the bill’s sponsors, said Monday that the draft recommendations are helpful but incomplete.
“I think the draft proposal is an excellent step forward in this discussion, because it focuses on some of the most significant concerns,” Donahue wrote in an email. “However, it does not meet that intent of the bill, since it is only a recommendation, and would not result in a uniform, statewide policy, and there are parts of the language that I think would need strengthening. I would hope that it would help move the bill forward, through building a stronger consensus on what reasonable minimum standards should be.”