A lesson for Vermont about Taser abuse
Vyto Starinskas / Staff File Photo
Alan Keays, then a police reporter and now news editor at the Rutland Herald, takes the shock of a Taser during training at the Fair Haven police station in January 2006. He is being supported by Steve Dechen, left, and Dennis Coughlin of the Castleton Police Department.
Since 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has been investigating allegations of excessive use of force by the Albuquerque, N.M., Police Department. The DOJ released the results of its investigation earlier this month. The report carries a message for both Albuquerque and Vermont.
The DOJ found that the Albuquerque PD engaged in a pattern of excessive use of force. One of the areas of abuse specifically noted in the report was Taser abuse.
The DOJ investigators recounted a series of abusive Taser incidents that are eerily similar to Vermont cases. Substitute Vermont names for those in the Albuquerque cases, and you won’t be able to distinguish the difference between what’s happened out there and what’s happening here.
DOJ investigators told the story of “Ben,” a 75-year-old disturbed man who refused to leave an Albuquerque bus station. He was tased. The story is virtually identical to that of a 58-year-old homeless woman tased in Barre in 2010 because she refused to leave the parking lot of a convenience store.
DOJ investigators told the story of “Harry,” who was suffering from a severe drug reaction and was threatening suicide. While officers were interviewing Harry’s mother, he tried to climb out a window and leave the house. An officer saw him and ordered Harry to the ground. Harry reportedly took a step toward the officer, and was tased. This is essentially the 2012 Macadam Mason story (except Harry survived his tasing while Mason did not).
DOJ investigations told the story of “David,” who police tried to remove from an apartment following a domestic disturbance complaint. David was hiding in a kitchen behind some cabinets. When he reportedly failed to comply with commands, he was tased. The story is similar to that of a Newport man tackled in his own home and tased after police said they smelled alcohol but the man refused a breath test.
The DOJ investigators wrote of the Albuquerque incidents: “The officers’ use of Tasers and other force in these incidents was not reasonable. None of the subjects posed a significant threat to the officers’ safety or that of anyone else.”
DOJ investigators were particularly concerned about Tasers used “against individuals in medical crisis or who were otherwise physically vulnerable.”
The Albuquerque story of “Jeremy,” a disturbed man who locked himself in a bathroom, is virtually identical to that of Lawrence Fairbrother, a Fairlee man prone to seizures who was tased after trying to hide under a pickup truck.
The Albuquerque story of “Ken,” a man having a bad reaction to medication, is similar to that of a Coventry man with Down syndrome who was tased by state troopers after he didn’t want to go to a new placement.
Using the standards applied by the U.S. Department of Justice in evaluating the Albuquerque cases, it’s hard not to conclude that Vermont police are using Tasers in many incidents where they shouldn’t be.
Citizens’ redress against abuses is limited. Simple complaints achieve little. As in Albuquerque, complaints in Vermont result in internal investigations that clear officers of any wrongdoing. Lawsuits are often a victim’s only recourse.
The number of Vermont lawsuits the ACLU has identified alleging Taser abuse by police and resulting in settlements is eight, with a total pay-out by police of $287,500. At least one other case is still being litigated.
There are numerous other so-called “awful but lawful” cases where lawsuits weren’t filed but where Taser user was at least questionable, if not inappropriate. Even without lawsuits, such cases are harmful to law enforcement because of what the Police Executive Research Forum describes as “the negative impact on a police agency’s ‘legitimacy’ that can occur from a ‘lawful but awful’ event.”
If the Taser bill (H.225) that has passed the House and is now in the Senate becomes law, “lawful but awful” cases, lawsuits, injuries, and even Taser deaths will likely continue. That’s because the House bill codifies the existing Taser deployment standard — a standard that allows police to use the powerful weapons on anybody “actively resisting” an officer.
“Active resistance” includes a subject crossing his arms over his chest, protestors who have chained themselves to a barrel, and impaired victims who make gestures police interpret as “precursors” to violence. No immediate threat to anyone’s safety is needed to justify a 50,000-volt shock.
Tasers are powerful weapons. Everyone agrees they’re better than guns. But we also know Tasers can kill. Police should not have broad discretion when to use them. Taser use should be limited to when they’re absolutely necessary — especially when dealing with “special” populations such as people with medical problems, mental health issues, disabilities or cognitive impairments.
The Taser bill is now in the Senate Government Operations Committee. Whether the Senate will create a more appropriate standard will be decided soon. That decision will be key to stopping abuses that so far have cost the state over a quarter million dollars — as well as the death of a disturbed epileptic man and unnecessary injuries to others. We just can’t have our police keep doing what they’ve been doing.
Allen Gilbert is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.