Taser law gets signature and support
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | June 11,2014
MONTPELIER — New regulations on the use of electronic stun guns by law enforcement were signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Peter Shumlin while the family of a man who died after being shocked with one of the devices looked on.
The law makes Vermont the first state to regulate the use of electronic stun guns, commonly referred to by the brand name Taser, and require training for all officers who use them. Debate over the use of Tasers has gone on for years but intensified after the death of 39-year-old MacAdam Mason in 2012.
“I’m proud that Vermont is the first state in the country that has a uniform policy for the use of Tasers,” Shumlin said before signing the bill at the State House. “We have to remember that law enforcement officers, every day, have extraordinarily difficult situations. We want to give them the tools to try to bring about a peaceful resolution in difficult situations. So, Tasers have a role, an important role.”
The law requires the Law Enforcement Advisory Board to develop a statewide policy on how the weapons are used and when they can be used. It requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to adopt the policy, which must include situations when police are allowed to use them.
Additionally, the legislation requires law enforcement personnel carrying stun guns to obtain training that goes beyond what the manufacturer provides and instructs officers on how to deal with people suffering from mental illness.
“This is a common-sense bill that basically cements Vermont’s Taser policy with the hope that uniform training and a statewide policy for the use of Tasers, in a sense, a uniform plan … will make it more likely we avoid tragedies like what happened to MacAdam,” Shumlin said.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said police were behind the legislation “since its onset.” Police agencies across the state supported the law “because we recognized the need,” he said.
“We’ve come a long way,” Flynn said.
Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford Center, said he introduced the legislation after Mason, one of his constituents, died after police used a Taser on him while checking on his well-being.
“I had what I thought was clear duty and responsibility, as well as the honor, to be able to be the lead sponsor on this bill,” Masland said. “If comprehensive training … was in place, then MacAdam would be with us today. I think that’s very clear. It’s a tragedy that it took his death to bring this into clear focus.”
Flynn said in addition to training, the statute now recognizes levels of resistance. Police will not be allowed to use a stun gun on people who are passively resisting police.
“What the statute does is it really clearly defines between active and passive resistance, and it looks at those two standards as sort of the benchmarks to when there’s active resistance and when there’s passive resistance,” Flynn said.
The standard for active resistance requires police to believe they are in imminent danger of bodily harm, Flynn said.
Mason’s mother, Rhonda Taylor, attended Tuesday’s bill signing, as did Mason’s brother. Taylor said she is pleased the state is adopting a statewide policy but hopes lawmakers will strengthen it in the future.
“I like the bill. I wish it had been a little bit stronger with when to use the Taser,” she said. “We do have in the wording ‘active resistance,’ but that’s a little bit subjective as to what is active resistance.”
Taylor said she also hopes the state will require testing and calibrating of stun guns and the use of body cameras by police in the future.
The new law “makes Vermont a wonderful state,” Taylor said, and other states are likely to follow Vermont’s lead.
Taylor, who said she has “a very large void” in her life, agreed with Masland that the law could have prevented the death of her son, who was not armed when police used a Taser on him.
“I think this bill would have slowed things down. I think that the situation would have been de-escalated. There were other officers on the scene, not just that one officer. There were several officers on the scene. Perhaps they would have used hand-hold techniques that they’re taught at law enforcement training,” she said. “Yes, I think it would have made a difference because it might not have ever gotten to the point where he died.”
Officials said the law is likely to be updated in the future.
“This is a step in the right direction to do everything we can to protect ourselves from tragedies,” Shumlin said. “We all know that when officers have to use a gun it often has a lethal consequence. So Tasers make sense.”