Vermont took a major step toward a statewide policy on Taser use Tuesday, as Gov. Peter Shumlin signed one of three bills into law.
A second bill educates defendants about the long-term consequences of their conviction or plea deal, and the third addresses the health care coverage of eye care.
The Taser measure, H.225, calls for a police oversight board to create a uniform, statewide policy for police Taser use, requiring training for all Vermont officers and clarifying the situations in which Taser use is permitted. The policy will stem from a draft version written by the Law Enforcement Advisory Board (LEAB) last year.
A “common sense bill,” Shumlin dubbed the measure, which includes provisions that compel officers to follow manufacturers’ recommendations regarding the use of Tasers.
The bill also requires that LEAB conduct two studies — one to investigate the possibility of obliging officers to wear body cameras when using Tasers, and a second to determine whether there should be a policy on the measurement and calibration of Tasers.
The law was prompted by the death of a man who died after being shot in the chest by a state police Taser.
MacAdam Mason, 39, of Thetford was shot two years ago by Trooper David Shaffer. Mason was moving toward the officer, though he was unarmed. No charges were filed against the officer.
Mason’s mother, Rhonda Taylor, was at the signing and held Mason’s dog, Bear, as she addressed the small gathering of media and supporters, thanking legislators for their work.
“H.225 for Lee”— Mason’s middle name — read the dog’s shirt.
“This is another step that this state has done under the leadership of Governor Shumlin that helps integrate our public safety system with our public health system so we help people who are in crisis and get outcomes that work for all Vermonters,” Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan said.
As they complete the requisite training, Donovan said, officers will be better able to identify individuals with mental health illnesses, de-escalate volatile situations and respond appropriately.
“It’s better than the standard most departments in Vermont have been using. It’s not as stringent as we would have liked,” said ACLU director Alan Gilbert. The ACLU supports body cameras on police, Gilbert said, and more clear definitions on when Tasers can be used.
H.225 may not have changed the outcome of the police confrontation with Mason two years ago, Taylor said, but it would have given him a chance.
“I think maybe it would have slowed things down at the scene,” Taylor said. “My son didn’t have a weapon. It was a wellness check. He hadn’t done anything wrong. It was normal that he had seizures and he had called for help. So, yes, I do believe it would have made a difference.”
“This law will make a great deal of difference to many people,” Taylor added.
“Anytime we can commit to state law practices that are consistent and standardized across this state, the citizens of Vermont will benefit,” Donovan said.
Shumlin also signed a collateral consequences bill into law — a measure to provide information to defendants on the implications and long-term consequences of a plea deal or conviction.
“Often, you don’t consider going forward what it (the conviction) means in terms of penalties — holding a job, and being able to find housing, other things that have been written into the books over the years,” the governor said. “Really, the question for all of us is how do we be tough on crime and smart on crime and I think this bill is a great example of how we can do both.”
The bill also includes limited relief later in life, in situations where the judge deems that “some of the collateral consequences may inhibit a productive life and where there is no threat to the community.”
The bill, officials said, will impact not only individuals, but will have positive implications for Vermont’s economy and criminal justice system.
Donovan called the bill an “anti-poverty measure,” pointing to thousands of Vermonters who can’t get jobs due to criminal records from decades before.
“If you’ve held them accountable and they’ve performed, they should have every right and every opportunity to get a good job and to be a productive citizen. That is the best form of public safety,” he said.
Optometrists declared equal
Shumlin also signed S.281, a bill that requires equal health care coverage of vision visits to optometrists as to ophthalmologists. The legislation also prohibits eye care service providers from charging different rates for insured and uninsured patients.