Police in Vermont will soon have to follow stricter rules about how they use electronic stun guns, following passage this week of a bill now headed to the governor’s desk for a signature.
The bill, H.225, calls on a police oversight committee to develop a policy for how and when police should use Tasers and mandates that all law enforcement agencies adopt it. The bill sets out key elements the policy must contain, including what types of situations make it OK to use the weapon.
For the first time in Vermont, the bill also requires police to attend Taser training, beyond that offered by the manufacturer, including instruction about dealing with people who have mental illness.
After much debate, legislators agreed on a definition for which types of confrontations merit the use of "electronic control weapons," the generic name for Tasers.
The bill says officers can only use a Taser against subjects who exhibit active aggression or actively resist in a manner the officer believes is likely to result in injury to others or themselves.
An officer can also fire a Taser if he or she believes it is the only way to prevent injuries to the subject or others, the bill says.
The bill also creates reporting requirements to get a better idea of how police are using Tasers.
Taser use by Vermont State Police has declined. There were 80 Tasers deployed in 2011 and 36 in 2013, according to state police statistics.
"It’s acceptable to everybody," said Rick Gauthier, executive director of the Criminal Justice Training Council, who also lobbied legislators about the Taser bill.
Gauthier is also the chairman of the Law Enforcement Advisory Board. The bill charges that group with studying whether police should wear cameras when they carry Tasers and whether there should be a statewide policy on the calibration and testing of Tasers.
Criticism of police use of Tasers grew after the 2012 death of a Thetford man after a state trooper shot him in the chest with a Taser.
The American Civil Liberties Union and groups representing people with disabilities fought hard this session over details in the bill.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, called the bill "a consensus" between police and advocates for civil rights, mental health and disabilities rights.
"This has been a very long road, starting with the Taser death of MacAdam Mason in 2012. The bill is a statement that we can do better in how police use these powerful weapons," Gilbert said in a statement.
Mason’s mother, Rhonda Taylor, on Friday issued a statement in response to the bill’s passage.
"Had the standards and training been in place in June of 2012, my son, MacAdam Lee Mason, would not have been killed by an unwarranted police tasering," Taylor wrote.
Taylor, whose son’s death prompted the bill, thanked legislators, officials and advocates for their work.