Taser Death Shines Spotlight On Police Stun Gun Use

10/05/12 7:50AM By John Dillon
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The June death of Thetford resident Macadam Mason has focused new attention on electronic weapons used by state police.

Mason died after being shot by a state police stun gun. The incident has prompted calls for more oversight of the state police and changes to their use-of-force policy.

VPR used the state's access to public records law to obtain dozens of internal state police reports that detail when and how troopers used electronic stun guns in the field.

One incident a year ago was fairly typical, except for the number of times the police fired their weapons. Two officers responded to a report that an intoxicated man was breaking windows outside his apartment. The police report says the man called 911 for help so he could stop smashing things.

The man sounded upset and out of control. A police recording of the incident shows the officers also became agitated when the suspect refused to be handcuffed.

"Do I have a weapon in my hands?" the man shouts, as he resists the attempts to subdue him.

The troopers give him one more warning, and then fire their Tasers. When it was over, the police had shocked the unarmed man seven times.

Then, according to state police policy, they read him a prepared script to assess his medical condition.

"Do you wish to be medically evaluated, yes or no?" the trooper asks.

"Yes, sir," the man replies.

He later asks: "Why did you guys Tase me more than that? I did not come after you."

The man's question - why did police shoot him with a stun gun multiple times - is not answered in the official report. Nor is any review of the incident available to the public. Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn says he won't comment on internal affairs investigations.

But Flynn says he's committed to strong oversight of the state police, including its use of electronic stun guns.

"And that helps us foster public confidence, which is something that we need to do," Flynn says. "People need to believe in the integrity and professionalism of their state police agency."  

Flynn says the State Police Advisory Commission provides citizen oversight. The seven-member panel has a broad charge to advise the commissioner on policy and internal discipline. The advisory commission will review the findings of the Macadam Mason death investigation, and may recommend changes to the state police use of force policy.

Nancy Sheahan is a Burlington lawyer and chair of the commission, known by its acronym "SPAC."  She says the commission helped the agency write the current stun gun policy, and has also reviewed citizen complaints of stun gun incidents.

"The way it would work is someone would make a complaint of excessive force and that is reviewed by the office of internal investigations.," she says. "And then as they're investigating, they report to SPAC about their progress. ... And we will indicate whether we feel the recommendation is appropriate or not."

Sheahan says that in her time on the panel it has not overruled the state police on stun gun cases.

"I recall reviewing incidents," she says. "I don't recall ever disagreeing with an ultimate recommendation."

Robert Appel is the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. He says the advisory panel lacks independence and is not truly accountable to the public.

Appel says he was frustrated when he tried to find out from the commission if disciplinary action was taken against an officer that Appel believes made a racially motivated arrest. He says the State Police Advisory Commission would not release information on the case, although the law allows such a release.

"So I don't see consistency. I don't see transparency. And I don't see any public access to that process," he says. "So I think we're woefully lacking in terms of holding all law enforcement agencies accountable."

Appel says the panel is too close to law enforcement, and that Sheahan's law firm has defended town police departments in lawsuits.

He says a better model is an inspector general or public advocate who would have investigative power, and report more directly to the public. He says the current commission can launch conduct its own reviews.

But "we have no idea what frequency, what the outcomes are, how that process works. So it's very hard to accept the notion that state police have a meaningful citizen review process," he says.

Sheahan says the commission does provide independent oversight.

"SPAC is independent in that nobody on SPAC is a member of the state police," she says. "So I'm not really sure what he has in mind, but we are independent from state police."

The stun gun debate is likely to reach the Legislature this winter. Thetford Rep. Jim Masland was a neighbor of the man who died last June after the Taser shock.

Masland says he wants to review the state's stun gun policy. And he says the June death in his hometown shows that police lack the experience or training for dealing with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

"I'm likely to introduce a bill mandating much more training for anyone who has a Taser at his disposal," he says.

Listen To Part One Of VPR's Special Report

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