Allen Gilbert, executive director of Vermont ACLU. (VTDigger photo)
Allen Gilbert, executive director of Vermont ACLU. (VTDigger photo)

MONTPELIER -- The state has paid at least $269,500 in settlements since 2004 in seven lawsuits alleging that police used Tasers inappropriately, the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has found.

A bill about police Taser use and training is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Government Operations Committee on Wednesday at 3 p.m. It has already passed the House.

Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert opposes the bill. It will lead not only to more settlements, he said, but perhaps more deaths like that of Macadam Mason, who died in 2012 after a state trooper shot him in the chest with a Taser.

Gilbert used news reports, court documents and state or municipal records to piece together information on the Taser-related lawsuits.

Cases range from a 2004 case involving a Brattleboro man in a hot tub, who was paid $37,500, to a 2005 wedding altercation in Arlington. The Arlington case was settled for $135,000, according to Gilbert's report.

"People need to realize that in these cases if the Legislature adopts the Taser bill as it passed out of the House, the use of Tasers in these cases would probably be justified," Gilbert said.


Advertisement

State law enforcement officials have said that would not be the case. The bill instructs the Law Enforcement Advisory Board to craft a Taser use and training policy, which the board's chairman has said will be adequate.

One issue is what type of circumstances justify an officer's use of a Taser.

The current policy proposal says an officer can use a Taser when a subject is "actively resistant," which Gilbert points out includes pulling away from an officer.

The ACLU believes a Taser should only be used when there is risk of serious injury or death to an officer, a subject or someone else on the scene.

"We think the standard has got to be changed," Gilbert said.

Before the bill was voted out of the House Government Operations Committee, some members asked for more assurance the policy would have "teeth." However, the bill was not amended before a vote.

A floor amendment on the bill, however, mandated that all law enforcement officers in Vermont receive so-called Act 80 training, which has to do with dealing with people with mental illness.

Taser use by the Vermont State Police, one of the few agencies that keeps records on Tasers, has declined from 80 uses in 2011 to 36 in 2013.

The Mason death led to a settlement of $30,000 for emotional distress to his girlfriend. Another suit is expected to be brought by Mason's estate, Gilbert said.

The settlement from a 2011 case involving a man with Down syndrome led the Vermont State Police to change their Taser use policy on disabled people, according to Gilbert.

"There might be others out there," Gilbert said.

It is painstaking to find records of settlements because there is no central agency that keeps statistics on this type of information, Gilbert said.

The Attorney General's Office on Monday said records of settlements are kept with the agency or department where the officer who used the Taser worked. There is no central database of settlements.