Vt. holds forum on 'stun gun' use by police

Dave Gram, Associated Press
Vt. holds forum on 'stun gun' use by police

Vermont State Police Sgt. Hugh O'Donnell presents information about tasers on Monday, March 11, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. Vermont Attorney Gen. Bill Sorrell hosted a public forum to evaluate the use of stun guns by the state's law enforcement community. The forum follows the death last summer of Macadam Mason, a Thetford man with mental health issues, who died of a heart attack last June after being shocked by a state police stun gun. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Electronic stun guns can keep police officers from being hurt in fights with unruly suspects, but police reach for them too readily, producing in one instance in Vermont fatal results, speakers at a forum said Monday.

Attorney General William Sorrell called for the forum in January as he cleared Senior Trooper David Shaffer of criminal liability in the case of Macadam Mason, 39, of Thetford, who died after Shaffer used a stun gun on him during a confrontation last June.

A.J. Ruben, supervising attorney with Disability Rights Vermont, a federally funded agency that advocates for people with disabilities, argued that with several troopers on the scene, the unarmed Mason could have been subdued without use of the electronic stun gun that a medical examiner later ruled led to his death from heart failure.

"It appears in many cases that law enforcement are using Tasers instead of using patience, or sometimes instead of using hands-on" force to subdue suspects, Ruben said.

He and other speakers said stun guns sometimes are used not to defuse a dangerous situation, but merely in an attempt to get someone to comply with an officer's orders.

Sgt. Hugh O'Donnell of the Vermont State Police, who trains officers in the use of Tasers, said the policy is not to use them in cases of passive resistance, as with peaceful demonstrators. But he said they can be used with people exhibiting "active resistance," which includes not just fighting with an officer, but trying to evade him or her.

But Walter Decker, retired deputy police chief in Burlington, said he saw the positive side of using Tasers — the stun gun brand of choice for Vermont police — rather than engaging in hand-to-hand fighting.

Earlier in his career, it was routine to have "two or three officers ... off the job, injured as a result of wrestling with combative subjects," Decker said. From 2006, when Burlington police got Tasers, to earlier this year, when Decker retired, "we had zero lost hours of an officer being injured while dealing with a combative subject if there was a Taser on scene."

Lawmakers are considering two bills related to police use of stun guns this session: One calls for uniform statewide training and standards for officers using them; the other would require that embedded digital memory chips that record each use of the weapons be a public record.

But standards applicable in all circumstances might be difficult to develop. Ruben said his agency had investigated one case in which a woman had a knife to her throat and appeared intent on suicide when she was stopped by an officer's Taser. Current training materials from stun gun maker Taser International Inc. say the weapon should not be used on someone in the midst of a mental health crisis. But Ruben said of the suicidal woman, "If there's an appropriate time to Tase, that seems like it was an appropriate time to do it."

Ruben and Jeffrey Dworkin, who chaired a special city-appointed committee that looked into equipping Montpelier police with Tasers and decided against it, said the weapons often drive a wedge between the police and the public.

"Many people with disabilities, be they developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, mental health problems, look at the Taser with great fear. It is a torture device for many people," Ruben said.

Dworkin added to too-quick resort to stun guns can spoil the "officer-community compact ... The most important weapon an officer has as he goes out into the community (is) the community's support."