New Law Will Set Statewide Taser Use Policy, Training

May 12, 2014

Macadam Mason called 911 on a June afternoon in 2012 because he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Hours later, he was dead. A Taser deployed by a Vermont State Trooper killed Mason, generating calls for reform and increased oversight around the use of the weapons.

A new bill out of the legislature this week will set specific policy and training guidelines around the use of the electronic stun guns by police.

The bill is the culmination of almost two years of work by lawmakers and advocates after Mason’s death.

One of those advocates was Rhonda Taylor, Mason’s mother.

Under the new bill, she said, “maybe this won’t happen to somebody else’s child, or somebody else’s father or somebody else’s boyfriend.”

Taylor worked with Mason’s neighbor, Jim Masland on the bill approved by the legislature, which calls for the creation of a statewide policy governing Taser use and training.

Masland said that while there’s no perfect legislation, he’s happy with the final result. The bill requires all officers to complete Act 80 training, “which principally does two things,” he said. “It teaches them how to work with the mentally impaired and it teaches them how to deescalate a situation before using a weapon.”

The bill also calls for the state’s Law Enforcement Advisory Board to examine whether police should wear cameras to record their interactions and look at how Tasers should be calibrated.

"The feedback I've been getting initially is that law enforcement is generally pretty happy with the way the bill finally came out." - Richard Gauthier, Law Enforcement Advisory Board Chairman

From the beginning of the debate on Tasers, civil liberties advocates and police were at odds over how to address their respective concerns.

Richard Gauthier, the chairman of the advisory board, said he thought the bill found middle ground.

“The piece that we were concerned with was making sure that the policy struck a balance between what law enforcement needs and protection of the public,” he said. “The feedback I’ve been getting initially is that law enforcement is generally pretty happy with the way the bill finally came out.”

And the activists on the other side seem to feel pretty good about it too.

Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was happy with the bill.

“Having some new things on the books, most especially a single, statewide policy that’s going to be developed on the use of Tasers and the training necessary before an officer can use those is just a really huge step in the right direction,” he said.

Gilbert has been working on related issues since 2005, well before Governor Peter Shumlin took office.

When the issue came up after Mason’s death in 2012, Shumlin was resistant to the idea of taking the weapons away from law enforcement.

But the governor said Friday that he supports the new bill.

“My view on Tasers is a simple one,” Shumlin said. “If you can use a Taser instead of a bullet, we have a much better likelihood that we’re not going to harm the person that you’re dealing with in a really tough confrontation that law enforcement has to go into every single day.”

Mason’s mother says she thinks the bill would have saved her son’s life if it had been passed sooner, but even passing it today gives her a sense of closure.