MONTPELIER — The Vermont House on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill calling for statewide standards on training for police using electronic stun guns.
The bill drew little to no debate in the Democratic-dominated House, even as critics, including the mother of a man killed in 2012 by a state trooper’s Taser, sharply criticized it as watered-down, weak and not specific enough.
“It feels like it’s really open to interpretation and it isn’t tight enough,” said Rhonda Taylor, mother of 39-year-old MacAdam Mason, of Thetford, who died of cardiac arrest after a state trooper used a Taser on him after he disobeyed an order to lie on the ground.
“It’s troopers investigating troopers” in police probes of stun gun incidents, Taylor said. A critical care nurse in a New Hampshire hospital, Taylor said she and her co-workers test daily the defibrillators that deliver shocks to cardiac patients.
The bill “doesn’t have any testing,” she said of its provisions on the Tasers that police use in Vermont. “They need to know whether the device is working properly if they are going to use it,” she said.
Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton and a member of the Government Operations Committee, who explained the bill to his House colleagues, said in an interview that the committee had decided to leave development of the training standards to the state Criminal Justice Training Council, which oversees the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford.
“We wanted to put it in the hands of the professionals, with the stipulation that they bring it back to us,” Hubert said. The bill calls for the council to report to the Legislature by December 2015 on the development and implementation of the new training standards.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, who oversees the Vermont State Police, said it would have been difficult to insert a great deal of specificity into the bill.
“Many times when you talk about force with law enforcement, it’s hard to define particular incidents. I think you can define categories of incidents,” Flynn said.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the standard for using Tasers had been reduced from in lieu of lethal force in the original draft of the bill to a situation in which a person was exhibiting active resistance to the police.
Gilbert said that “active resistance includes something as simple as pulling your arms across your chest.” He said as it stands now, the bill would not make a sufficient change in police policy. “The standard in the current bill is the standard that led to the death of MacAdam Mason,” he said.
But Flynn argued that the standard in the original bill, which said a stun gun should be used only when lethal force otherwise would be justified, went too far.
“I don’t agree that a Taser is the application of lethal force. I think it’s more appropriately categorized as less than lethal force,” Flynn said.
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