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Vt. rethinks use-of-force, TASER protocol

By John Curran
The Associated Press

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — Stung by criticism over their 2001 killing of a knife-wielding man, police here turned to electronic stun guns in hopes of avoiding fatal confrontations.

Since then, Tasers have assumed a prominent place in the Brattleboro Police Department's arsenal, with officers using them to subdue drunks, would-be suicide victims and psychiatric patients, according to police department records obtained through Freedom Of Information Act requests.

"Before, using batons, pepper spray or hand-to-hand techniques, there's a high likelihood of some type of injury, both to the officer and to the suspect," said Police Chief John Martin. "This has been a phenomenal tool that has allowed the arrest -- in most situations without any force -- by its mere presence.

"Fear of electricity is pretty high. When you see that device come out of its holder, more often than not, the person says `I don't want any part of it. I give up,'" he said.

The use of Tasers has come under increased scrutiny in Vermont and elsewhere, with some people questioning the need in certain cases, including several incidents in which psychiatric hospital patients were stunned.

The stunning of two nonviolent protesters at a July 24 demonstration here triggered an outpouring of criticism, including a July 7 rally in which about 50 people turned out, carrying "Protect and serve, not shock and awe" signs and marching through downtown.

The state Attorney General's office is investigating two incidents involving Brattleboro police and Tasers. One was a July 3 incident at Brattleboro Retreat in which a juvenile patient was stunned; the other was the July 24 incident involving the protesters.

The Attorney General also is examining use-of-force policies in Vermont police agencies, intending to come up with a uniform protocol for police use of the devices, according to Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell, who said a report is months away.

Brattleboro police were the first in Vermont to get the devices, which shoot tethered probes at suspects, injecting them with electrical current, or are applied directly to the body, temporarily incapacitating the person.

The first ones were donated by a credit union after the Dec. 2, 2001 shooting of Robert "Woody" Woodward.

Woodward, 37, barged into All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in West Brattleboro during Sunday services, shouting that the government was out to kill him and holding a hunting knife to his head. When police arrived, they shot him seven times.

Officers Terrence Parker and Marshall Holbrook were cleared of using excessive force by the state, and a judge ruled that Woodward posed a threat to the officers, although witnesses said otherwise. His family sued the town over the shooting, and a settlement was reached last year, though its terms were never released.

Martin said his department's use of Taser guns -- it now has eight -- has helped save at least one life and maybe more in the years since.

"They were welcome, regardless of that situation. It added another tool to our belt, offering an option we didn't have," said Martin in an Aug. 16 interview, prior to taking administrative leave last week.

According to Brattleboro police reports on Taser-involved incidents obtained by The Associated Press:

-- Officers used Tasers on people four times in 2003, six times in 2004, twice in 2005, five in 2006 and five this year.

-- Juveniles were shocked by stun guns once in 2003, twice in 2004 and once each in 2006 and 2007. All but one of the incidents occurred at Brattleboro Retreat, a private psychiatric hospital where police have been called to help with out-of-control patients.

-- On several occasions, officers have drawn Tasers but not shot them because suspects suddenly complied with orders when faced with the weapons.

Of six Taser incidents involving juveniles dating to 2003, five were at Brattleboro Retreat and four resulted in patients being shocked with the device, according to the records.

Mental health advocates and others are disturbed by those numbers.

"Our feeling is that there should be other ways of handling situations that require de-escalation," said Ed Paquin, executive director of Vermont Protection and Advocacy, Inc., a private not-for-profit agency that protects civil rights and human rights of people with disabilities.

"It's rare or almost never that the Vermont State Hospital calls in an outside entity, and they handle folks that are of greater intensity or difficulty than the Retreat does," he said.

Ken Libertoff, executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health, said his organization wants a moratorium on Taser use on minors.

"It should not be acceptable to use a Taser on a child in treatment," he said. "It's time for a public conversation about how to de-escalate situations so that we don't have need for calling in the police."

The names of the people who were shocked with Tasers weren't released. According to a summary sheet provided by the Brattleboro Police Department, the behavior that precipitated the Taser deployments included assaulting police, threatening to commit suicide, self-mutilation and destroying property.

"We never plan on calling the police," said Peter Albert, director of external affairs for the hospital, a private facility specializing in psychiatric and substance abuse treatment.

"The police are never part of any treatment plan intervention. We call the police when it's deemed to have moved from a clinical crisis to a simple matter of safety," he said.

Martin could not be reached for comment on the Brattleboro Retreat incidents. In the earlier interview, he declined comment on the July 3 incident there, saying it was under investigation by the state.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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