Lawmakers are reacting to the stun gun death of a Thetford man last year with legislation that would restrict police use of the electronic weapons.
Sponsors of the bill say they are also want to improve police training, especially in dealing with people undergoing a mental health crisis
Macadam Mason was 39 when he died last June. His encounter with police came after he had called a hospital threatening to harm himself or others. After a brief standoff, a state police officer shot him in the chest with a stun gun after Mason refused orders to lie on the ground.
His mother, Rhonda Taylor, went before the microphone in a Statehouse committee room last week to tell lawmakers about her son.
“My son, Macadam Mason, loved Vermont,” Taylor said, in a voice shaking with grief. “He was so happy here. He was an extremely talented artist, and he was working on building a portfolio of paintings to be juried for sale. This was one of the paintings that he had done. … And he gave that to me for mother’s day last year.”
Taylor said her son suffered from a seizure disorder, and was disoriented following the episodes. She said he probably didn’t understand the police commands.
She said the police officers present could have easily subdued him without firing a weapon.
“My son had no weapon. He was a skinny, six foot tall man that the wind could blow over. And there were four officers,” she said. “So I think that there needs to be certain guidelines with the law. And I do believe it is a lethal weapon because it’s definitely killed my son.
The bill under consideration by the House Government Operations Committee limits use of the electronic weapons to situations that justify lethal force, or to prevent imminent harm.
That’s a change from the current policy which allows state police to use the stun guns on people who are “actively resisting,” or who pose risk of injuring themselves or others.
Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, chairs the committee. She said law enforcement officials are resisting the change.
“They take exception with that piece. I understand why,” she said. “We understand why, because that would be setting strict policy for them. And we’ve heard from them, saying that there are other times it’s needed to have the ability to make that decision to use the Taser.”
But critics of police use of electronic stun guns say the weapons can clearly be deadly, and thus require strict regulation.
Jeffrey Dworkin chaired a committee in Montpelier that advised the city council on whether the local police should be equipped with stun guns. He told the lawmakers that officers cannot possibly know in advance if a person they’re aiming at has a physical or mental condition that would make them especially vulnerable to harm.
“They don’t know who has a heart condition, perhaps a pacemaker. They don’t know who has a serious mental illness or the medications they’re taking,” he said. “They don’t know when somebody is being obstreperous on the one hand, or is in the midst of an epileptic seizure. There are so many unknowns about the person they’re encountering out there that make it an extremely dangerous weapon. And really they’re rolling the dice when they use it.”
The legislation also requires more police training on mental health issues. A VPR investigation last year found that state police used the weapons 10 times in 18 months on people threatening suicide or who were undergoing a mental health crisis.
Committee Chairman Sweaney said more training is clearly needed.
“We should have a system set up by which every police officer in the state gets that training, and especially double if you’re using any kind of Tasers,” she said.
Sweaney said her panel may not have enough time this year to finish work on the bill. She said if it does not pass this year, it will be a top priority for the next legislative session.