The Senate Friday gave preliminary approval to a controversial bill calling for statewide policies regarding police Taser use and training.
The bill this session was the subject of much debate in the House and Senate, especially over what type of circumstances should merit police use of Tasers, also known as electronic control devices.
Police use of Tasers is controversial, especially after the 2012 death of Thetford man Macadam Mason, who died after a state trooper shot him in the chest with a Taser.
The American Civil Liberties Union as well as disabilities rights groups this session have lobbied lawmakers to make sure Tasers are not over-used and that police understand how to deal with people who have mental illnesses or other types of disabilities.
The Senate Government Operations Committee made several changes to the bill after it passed the House.
“The goal is a balance between people feeling they are protected from overuse and to ensure that police were able to use Tasers in a way that’s appropriate,” said committee member Sen. Eldred French, D-Rutland, who presented the bill to the Senate.
The bill requires the Law Enforcement Advisory Board to establish a statewide policy on the use of and training requirements for Tasers and make sure all law enforcement officers comply.
The Senate changed the so-called “standard for deployment” for Tasers from the House version. The bill says officers can only use a Taser against subjects who exhibit active aggression or actively resist in a manner the officer believes is likely to result in injury to others or themselves.
An officer can also shoot a Taser if he or she believes it is the only way to prevent injuries to the subject or others, the bill says.
The bill instructs officers to attempt to de-escalate the situation first, and give warnings before using a Taser, which can be shot or pressed against a person’s skin to administer an electric shock.
Tasers should not be used as punishment or to awaken a person, the bill says, and should not be used on animals.
The bill also instructs police to understand how Tasers can affect people who are suffering from an emotional crisis, who have a disability or “higher risk populations that may be more susceptible to injury” by being shot by a Taser.
Several senators Friday questioned whether it is smart to give police officers Tasers. Others said Tasers are a necessary alternative to guns and can save lives.
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said Tasers are a necessary evil.
“I think we should be very careful in how they’re used,” Baruth said.
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, asked how they are different from a cattle prodder.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, a former police officer, said Tasers are useful and police are properly trained.
“It’s not just like the old West where everybody gets a gun and shoots anybody that they don’t like,” Campbell said.
The bill asks for a study of whether police who carry Tasers should wear cameras.
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, joked that if police are required to wear cameras, perhaps lawmakers should, too, so people can see if lawmakers make deals in the cloakrooms.
“At what point do we stop micromanaging, make sure that we give people the training they need to have, give their supervisors the training they need to have and then let them do their jobs? And if we don’t think they’re doing their jobs, we get rid of them,” Cummings said.
It is now up to the House to approve the Senate changes or hammer them out in a conference committee.