Vermont State Police Senior Trooper David Shaffer did not complete the 6.5 hour mental health crisis training now required for all incoming state troopers before he deployed his Taser against Macadam Mason, 39, of Thetford last month. Mason died soon after being tasered.
The training, a product of 2004 legislation that appropriated $50,000 to enhance officers’ ability to respond to mental health crises, became mandatory in 2006, starting with the 82nd Basic Police Academy Class, officials say. Shaffer was in the 81st.
Macadam Mason called Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center last month threatening violence to himself and others. The hospital notified state police, who responded to Mason’s Thetford home. Police dispatch also informed Mason’s significant other, Theresa Davidonis, of the situation and requested she go to the home, where she also lives.
There are conflicting reports of the events leading up to the moment Shaffer discharged his Taser. While police say Mason was moving toward Shaffer yelling with a closed fist, Davidonis said he stood up with open palms and said “shoot me” to Shaffer, who was pointing an assault rifle at him. All accounts are the same after that; Shaffer lowered his assault rifle, drew his Taser and fired it into Mason’s chest.
Mason, who Davidonis says suffered from epilepsy and had experienced a seizure the night before, dropped to the ground unresponsive.
“His eyes went back in his head, and that was it. Done. And I was just screaming. Screaming and screaming,” she said.
Failed legislation would have stripped Shaffer of his Taser
A piece of legislation, H.3, introduced in January by Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, would have taken Tasers out of the hands of all law enforcement officers who had not completed the training borne of Act 80, titled “Interacting with People Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis.”
After the 6.5 hour training became mandatory in the Police Academy, any officers who had already graduated from the academy without it were not required to complete it, though officials say they were encouraged.
In 2011, all uniformed Vermont State Police officers who had completed certification for carrying Tasers were equipped with them said Col. Thomas L’Esperance. Officers carrying Tasers are required to complete annual recertification, which includes 1.5 hours of training specifically related to people in mental health crises. Vermont State Police public information officer Stephanie Dasaro said Shaffer completed the 2012 recertification as well as a four-hour class relating to mental health while he was in the Police Academy in 2006.
While certification and annual recertification are required for officers to carry a Taser, any officer who graduated before the 82nd Basic Police Academy class is not required to complete Act 80 training in order to carry a Taser. Donahue hoped to change that, but her legislation never made it out of committee.
“It got presented in the government operations committee in the House … and there was a lot of positive interest by committee members, but it never went to the next step beyond that,” she said.
Donahue said she introduced the legislation with the hopes that it would prevent incidents in which officers without proper training were faced with a difficult situation during a mental health crisis and turned to their Tasers as a resolution.
“It just seemed to me like a no-brainer baseline,” Donahue said.
Mental Health, Public Safety collaborating to enhance response
Act 79, signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin April 4, lays out funding and infrastructure for the state’s mental health system. Mental health reform became an urgent issue in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which rendered Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury unusable.
In a July 2 release, Mental Health Commissioner Patrick Flood announced his department was ramping up efforts to facilitate and collaborate with state and local law enforcement as well as mental health offices all over the state.
In an interview, Flood said the state is working to utilize $8 million allotted by the Legislature this year to develop mobile crisis teams, increased mental health services, and improved adult outpatient services.
The mobile crisis response teams would be made up of mental health professionals trained to respond to mental health crises in the field whenever they might occur. Part of the delay in organizing these teams, Flood said, is the demanding nature of the work.
“Doing crisis response in the field is not for everybody, so you have to hire the right people,” he said.
The immediate agenda for the mental health and law enforcement communities is two-fold, Flood said. As mental health professionals work to get crisis response teams set up, law enforcement officials are working with them to develop protocols to make sure both groups are kept apprised of developing situations.
“We are seeking to engage mental health workers whenever appropriate, whenever they’re going to be helpful,” said Keith Flynn, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. Flynn said that while state police are already prepared to respond to situations all over the state, they are changing their protocols to be more inclusive of mental health professionals.
The state police’s Tactical Support Unit, or SWAT team, has already implemented such a policy, Flynn said. “We engage with mental health people right at the onset so that they’re part of the team,” he said.
Flynn said that if the unit was called into a mental health crisis situation today, they would bring on mental health professionals to provide situational guidance.
While mental health professionals can assist in these situations, Flynn said there is also a danger associated, and he made it clear that the State Police are still putting safety first.
“We aren’t going to be taking these people, these mental health workers, into harm’s way. They’re going to come into an incident when it is safe to do so,” Flynn said.