Taser deaths by police in Vermont and elsewhere clearly show that it is time for a moratorium on what the UN calls a "torture weapon."
On the evening of June 20th in Thetford VT, Macadam Mason was just another all-but-anonymous 39-year-old artist, an alcoholic sober three years, a father of three who had epilepsy and mental health issues in the bargain. He’d had a grand mal seizure the day before and was suffering what, for him, were the typical disorienting after effects that usually lasted for days.
On June 21, he was dead. A Vermont State Trooper, responding to a call from a hospital suggesting that Mason was suicidal and possibly dangerous to others, ended up killing the unarmed, disoriented Mason with a taser, after a three-hour interaction, with two other troopers present, and even though they were told Mason was epileptic by the fours members of Mason’s family who were forced to stay back and only watch from nearby.
As soon as Trooper David Schaffer tasered him in the chest, Mason dropped to the ground and stopped breathing. The troopers present attempted to revive him, without success. An ambulance took him to the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, where he was pronounced dead on arrival, without having recovered consciousness. The Vermont State Police are saying the taser didn’t kill Mason, witnesses disagree, and New Hampshire authorities have performed an autopsy, but say it will be several weeks before toxicology reports are done.
This series of events made Macadam Mason at least the 525th American since 2001 to die in an incident of taser death. Tasers can deliver a 50,000 volt shock to its victim at a distance of ten feet or more. Mason’s is the first such taser death in Vermont. Tasers are commonly, and wrongly referred to as “non-lethal weapons,” even though its manufacturer, Taser International, is careful to call it only “less lethal” than guns.
The case is currently under investigation by the Vermont State Police, but there have been calls for an independent investigation, as well as the establishment of an independent civilian review board. There have also been calls for a moratorium on Taser use in Vermont, to consider the weapon’s actual lethality, as well as the constitutionality of using electro-shock, a technique commonly used for torture, and a weapon long deemed a torture weapon by the United Nations and others.
Supreme Court Asked to Rule on Tasers
The United States Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of police use of tasers or stun guns in general, although a number of lawsuits have been filed in jurisdictions around the country.
Earlier this spring two cases from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California were presented by parties on both sides to the Supreme Court for consideration. The Los Angeles County Police Chiefs’ Association, while not a party to either case, also urged the court to review the Fourth Amendment issues relating to taser use as “excessive force.” The high court has previously held that the constitutional protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” should be broadly construed to include excessive force.
In one of the two cases, in 2004, Seattle police tasered a seven-months pregnant woman three times and dragged her from her car after she declined to sign a ticket for going 32 mph in a school zone. In the other case, from 2006, in Maui, Hawaii, police responded to a domestic disturbance call and then tasered the woman even though, as the 9th Circuit Court found, she was “attempting to defuse the situation.”
Despite these and similar cases of police tasering that have left over 500 dead and hundreds more injured, the Supreme Court decided on May 24 not to hear either case. This leaves Vermont in a constitutionally grey area in which the state could conceivably be sued for significant damages by Mason’s family, who have already retained an experienced plaintiffs’ attorney.
Multi-million Dollar Awards in Other Taser Cases
In California, in 2009, the family of a man who died after several taserings won a settlement of $300,000 and another California man won $330,000 even though he survived cardiac arrest after police tasering. In 2008, another California man was shocked and went into cardiac arrest, eventually winning $6.2 million for the manufacturer, Taser International in Arizona. And in July 2011, the family of a 17-year-old North Carolina boy who died from tasering won a federal jury award of $10 million against Taser Int., later reduced by the judge to $4.3 million.
The jury in this case found that Taser had been negligent by failing to warn taser users not to discharge the weapon into a person’s chest. The boy had no heart disease and had no drugs in his system. After the verdict, plaintiffs’ lead council, John Burton, described its importance: "Taser has been irresponsible in representing the safety of its products. Hopefully, this verdict will sound the alarm to police officers around the world that firing these weapons into the chests of people should be avoided. No other family should have to endure the tragedy that the Fontenot family has experienced."
The taser in the North Carolina case was a model X26, the same model carried by 209 Vermont State Troopers of whom most had had some taser training at the time of Mason’s death, as well as two hours of training on how to deal with subjects with mental health issues. Since last year, Taser International has been warning police not to use tasers on a person’s chest, face, or genitals. The Vermont State Police has not made public what taser training or mental health training any of the officers on the scene had had before they were involved in Mason’s death.
Taser incidents are not new to Vermont, although earlier ones were not lethal. In 2007, when two peaceful protestors chained themselves to a barrel in an empty lot to protest the plan to put a truck stop there, Brattleboro police tasered them numerous times even though they couldn’t move. The pair suffered burns, bumps, and bruises from police treatment, in addition to numerous electrical shocks. They characterized the police behavior as a form of torture, but they lost their lawsuit against the police department.
Almost a year later, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell found the police conduct in this and another incident involving a juvenile unacceptable. As part of his review of taser cases in Vermont, Sorrell subjected himself to a tasering of 50,000 volts for five seconds, an experience he called the longest five seconds of his life. “The Brattleboro Police blew it in both cases,” Sorrell said, adding, “They should not have tasered the two protesters even one time, let alone multiple times for each of them.”
Vermont Searches for Taser Policy That Works
As taser incidents continued to occur, mental health and civil rights advocates became increasingly vocal in their complaints to the Vermont State Police. In April 2011, state police tasered a 23-year-old man with Down syndrome and other disabilities because he was refusing to leave his home to be taken to a shelter. The incident led the police to enter into discussion of taser policy with Disability Rights Vermont, talks that eventually produced a new policy and a $7,000 settlement with the man, who was not injured other than the shock.
The Vermont State Police announced their new taser policy in October 2011, promising to give careful consideration as to when and how to use tasers on people with disabilities. The policy called for the use of a taser only when a person was armed and presented a risk of harm, or when there was no other reasonable way to maintain safety or take a person into custody. As a police press release put it recently, “These changes included consideration for ‘persons with cognitive impairments’ and mandatory training for members carrying tasers.”
With the killing of Mason, who was clearly a “person with cognitive impairments,” advocates are once again questioning police policy – and asking for an immediate moratorium on police use of tasers until this case has been investigated and more effective policy has been established. On June 27, the American Civil Liberties of Vermont, the Mental Health Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid, and the Vermont chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness held a joint news conference calling for an immediate moratorium on taser use until such time as they can be more reliably controlled.
Later the same day the state rejected the idea of a moratorium. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, Attorney General Sorrell, and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn all turned down the idea of suspending taser use. Using a false choice analogy irrelevant to what happened to Mason, the governor argued that “The notion that we stop using tasers in Vermont I think would result in police officers having to use bullets more that taser shots, and that’s not such a good idea.
According to the state police, troopers have fired their tasers 16 times so far this year. Last year police drew the weapon over 80 times but actually tasered a subject 32 times. In recent years there have been several deaths from police shooting in Vermont.
It is time for a moratorium on taser use by police.