A bill introduced during the first week of the 2011 legislative session would prohibit Vermont police officers from carrying Tasers if they haven’t been adequately trained to deal with people who are mentally ill. The legislation, aimed at reducing the use of the electronic stun guns on that vulnerable population, comes as the Vermont State Police prepares to issue Tasers to all 220 of its field officers.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield), says she wants to ensure that all Taser-carrying Vermont cops have undergone the state police academy’s eight-hour training, in which they learn how to handle individuals with psychiatric problems. The so-called “Act 80” training was created by the 2003-04 legislature at the urging of mental-health advocates, and has been mandatory for all new cadets since 2006. However, many Vermont cops who graduated from the academy before 2006 never took the class.
The Burlington PD, the state’s largest municipal police force, credits Tasers with dramatically reducing injuries — and resulting worker’s comp claims — sustained by officers when they try to restrain combative people. The device temporarily incapacitates subjects by overriding the body’s central nervous system with 50,000 volts of electricity.
But some critics of the electronic stun devices have complained that police occasionally use them excessively or in inappropriate situations. Just last week, for example, a federal judge in Burlington allowed a Springfield parolee to sue police for tasing him after he’d fallen out of an apartment window and broken his pelvis in August 2007. The cop’s first jolt precipitated the fall, the lawsuit alleges.
Others decry the use of Tasers on individuals who are having psychotic episodes or are only passively resisting police directives. Notably, an April 2008 report by Attorney General William Sorrell was critical of the Brattleboro Police for tasing two nonviolent demonstrators who chained themselves to steel barrels in a private vacant lot to protest a planned development there in July 2007. Police tased the protestors after they refused an order to vacate the property, even though neither posed a threat to the officers nor to the public.
Donahue says using Tasers to force compliance is a worrisome trend, especially when directed at individuals with psychiatric problems. Although Vermont doesn’t keep track of how often Tasers are used on such people, Donahue says national figures suggest that the devices are used disproportionately on the mentally ill.
Moreover, she and other mental-health advocates express concern about a related phenomenon in other states: Some emergency rooms are issuing Tasers to their security personnel to better manage psychotic or impaired patients. Donahue hasn’t heard of any Vermont hospitals doing so. But she fears some may, especially because the state has a shortage of psychiatric beds, which can delay patient care.
“We’ve had instances in the last year and a half where people actually waited more than 24 hours in an emergency room for a mental-health bed somewhere in the system,” she notes.
Ironically, a major catalyst for Taser use in Vermont was the lethal police shooting of a mentally ill man who brandished a knife in Brattleboro’s All Souls Church in December 2001. Since then, at least 28 police departments around the state have equipped their officers with Tasers, which fall into the weapons category of “less than lethal” force.
For his part, Vermont’s top state police officer says he’s not opposed to Donahue’s bill.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with Rep. Donahue on the proposed legislation,” Colonel Thomas L’Esperance declared in a written statement. “The Vermont State Police will embrace any training that allows us to effectively interact with those experiencing a mental-health crisis.”