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Call for Vermont Taser Moratorium after death

State hones mental health crisis response

MONTPELIER — Less than two weeks after a Thetford man died following a shock from a state police trooper’s Taser, the Shumlin administration has announced state police and mental health experts will take steps to better coordinate their responses to mental health crises.

The commissioners of the departments of Public Safety and Mental Health said Monday that within 48 hours the state’s designated mental health agencies and state police barracks will have “point persons on hand to speed communication” when either group learns of someone struggling with a mental health crisis.

“Whenever either party learns of an event that may call for police and mental health intervention, the other will be called immediately, and the parties will stay in touch until the situation is resolved,” according to the announcement. “Whenever possible, a mental health professional will join the police at the scene. Within three weeks, joint protocols will be in place to guide interactions in these situations.”

The announcement comes after 39-year-old Macadam Mason died when Trooper David Shaffer shot the barbs of a Taser into Mason’s chest June 20.

Police were trying to take Mason into protective custody outside his home after he called a crisis hotline and reportedly threatened to harm himself and others.

Police said Mason was unarmed but acted aggressively before Shaffer used the Taser. A witness disputed the police account and said Mason did not move toward police, yelling aggressively with a closed fist, as law enforcement officials described.

The results of an autopsy have not been announced, so the cause of Mason’s death is undetermined, but when he was shot with the Taser he became unresponsive immediately and was pronounced dead shortly after.

Family members told media outlets Mason had epilepsy.

His death prompted an outcry among mental health advocates, who have long aired concerns that people with mental illness are more likely to run afoul of police and have Tasers used against them. Some questioned whether a mental health expert could have defused the standoff with Mason and reduced the need for force.

Shumlin administration officials said attempts were under way before Mason’s death to try to have the two departments better coordinate their responses to mental health patients and said their agreement was consistent with Act 79, the bill the Legislature passed this year to overhaul the state’s mental health system.

Incidents like Mason’s death illustrate the need for for “improved coordination and mobile outreach,” according to the administration.

“The Department of Mental Health has been reaching out to law enforcement for many months to partner with state and local police on how best to respond to reports involving people in mental health crisis,” said Keith Flynn, the public safety commissioner, said in a written statement. “We have agreed we need to step up the pace.”

Budget problems in recent years starved the designated mental health agencies of money to fund mobile crisis units, but the Legislature this year deployed new funding to redevelop those services, according to the administration.

Mental health advocates and civil libertarians pressured Gov. Peter Shumlin last week to call for a moratorium on Taser use in Vermont and adopt new Taser policies, but Shumlin rejected the idea.

“The notion that we stop using Tasers in Vermont I think would result in police officers having to use bullets more than Tasers, and that’s not such a great idea,” said Shumlin.

Floyd Nease, the executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health, said he and other advocates didn’t expect the governor to agree when they held a news conference last week outlining steps they want Vermont to take to reduce the risks from Tasers.

“The purpose was to hope for a moratorium knowing we probably wouldn’t get one but also to make the public aware that Taser use is not benign, that whatever Mr. Mason was or wasn’t doing he didn’t deserve the death penalty,” said Nease.

Nease said he doesn’t plan to push for legislation related to Tasers next year when lawmakers reconvene. He said he would prefer the administration form a task force “made up of citizens, some people with lived experience of mental illness, police officers, state’s attorneys, and sit down and really look at Taser use in Vermont and then recommend a policy.”

One mental health advocate, meanwhile, is trying to keep the pressure on Shumlin to agree to a temporary ban on Tasers.

Morgan Brown, an advocate who weighs in frequently on issues facing Vermont’s mental health community, started a petition last week that urges Shumlin to agree to a moratorium.

“The hope is people who are aware of it have a means to register to the governor through means of the petition what they want,” said Brown, who created the petition at SignOn.org two days after the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mental Health Law Project and others held the news conference and urged a Taser timeout. “Hopefully, that will register with the governor.”

Monday afternoon the petition had 29 signatures.

Brown said Monday’s announcement was a good step but believes a moratorium is still needed to protect Vermonters.

“Even with what we’ll have in 48 hours, it’s going to be limited,” said Brown. “They’re still going to have Tasers out there.”

Advocates calling for a moratorium have a list of steps they want taken, including having Tasers considered deadly force, having an independent civilian body review police use of deadly force, and instituting a statewide uniform standard for use of force.

Officials at the Department of Public Safety have said that once they thoroughly evaluate the Mason case they will determine whether changes to state police Taser policies are needed.






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