Vermont State Police Sgt. Hugh O'Donnell took aim at a cardboard dummy -- and fired.
The stun gun instructor was demonstrating how the weapon worked during a public hearing in Montpelier Monday. His audience -- a panel of lawmakers and advocates charged with reviewing police use of stun guns.
Former Burlington Police Deputy Chief Walt Decker touted the weapon's many benefits. "When you display that device and tell them a Taser is on scene, that immediately changes the behavior of many violent combative subjects," he said.
Decker, once a stun gun skeptic, now embraces the tool. He said when used correctly, Tasers dramatically cut down injury to police and suspects while allowing smaller framed cops to arrest muscular criminals without incident. Thirty-nine departments statewide use stun guns, giving police a less lethal alternative to firearms.
"Each and every year there were at least two or three instances where an officer would have been justified to use deadly force, but instead opted to use the Taser," Decker said.
State police added Tasers to their tool belts two years ago. Out of the 110,000 cases during that period, troopers used stun guns 150 times, including 80 displays of the weapon and 70 deployments. Police said it's the most trackable police tool on the market.
"It has internal memory of date, time stamp, deployment of use," Decker said.
Yet critics, like Jeffrey Dworkin, slam the state for lack of oversight, inadequate police training and vague deployment standards. They accused the governor and attorney general of not taking the issue seriously and ignoring moratorium requests. "We need to keep this weapon in storage until we take the steps that are needed to make it safe enough to deploy in this state," Dworkin said.
Others, like AJ Ruben, a lawyer for Disability Rights Vermont, said police are misusing stun guns on people with physical and cognitive disabilities. And that state police only added a mental health component to training when faced with a lawsuit. Ruben wants additional protections like cameras added to stun guns -- and yearly public disclosures of use. "It does not appear to me at this time that the citizens of Vermont have an effective, credible way of determining whether police officers using Tasers are doing it correctly," he said.
Public input will be accepted until March 26th. The panel then plans to draft a written report. But the attorney general admits it's too soon to tell whether that report will demand legislative change or simply offer advice to lawmakers.
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