Macadam Mason was alone on June 20, and that wasn’t unusual. The 39-year-old Thetford artist often worked at home painting and sculpting while his girlfriend, Theresa Davidonis, met with clients at her nearby hair salon.
Davidonis was glad to get out of the house that Wednesday while Mason recovered from an epileptic seizure he’d had the previous day. She steered clear as she knew he could be moody and withdrawn after a seizure.
In 2011, Mason had more than 10 epileptic incidents that led to spells of temperamental behavior. A recovering alcoholic, he had been sober for three years. Despite his physical and mental challenges, Davidonis’ family described him as a “teddy bear.” He especially adored Theresa’s grandson Carter.
Under other circumstances, June 20 — Carter’s third birthday — would have been a happy occasion. Instead, on a day when the family should have been celebrating, Mason wound up dead after he was tased by state police.
It was the first death in Vermont after a police Taser deployment.
A VTDigger.org analysis of police incident reports shows that since all troopers were issued Tasers in April 2011 (a special unit has had the devices since 2006), stun guns have been fired 33 times. Of the 53 officers who have drawn a Taser, 14 troopers have done so multiple times.
It is unclear, based on police records, how often troopers have fired stun guns on people with mental health problems and/or medical conditions.
Senior Trooper David Shaffer, who fired at Mason, had unholstered his stun gun four previous times — more than any other officer in the uniform division of the police force, according to records obtained from the Vermont State Police. When he shot Mason it was the first time he had deployed his Taser. Though officers have been trained not to fire on a subject’s head or chest, Shaffer aimed at Mason’s mid-section.
Specialized training for circumstances like that Shaffer faced — an incident in which a subject has a known illness, such as epilepsy, and is in the middle of a mental health crisis — is not a requirement for all troopers.
Mental health advocates and a civil liberties group are calling for a moratorium on Taser use in the wake of Mason’s death.
State officials say Tasers prevent law enforcement from using guns to quell violent subjects.
Gov. Peter Shumlin commented on the efficacy of Taser use last month shortly after Mason died. While Tasers issue a painful shock, Shumlin maintains they’re better than the alternative.
“Anything can kill someone. It depends how you use it. The point is, Tasers are less likely to kill you than a bullet, which is why we use them,” Shumlin said at a June 27 press conference.
How the tragedy unfolded
A month later, Mason’s friends and family, the Vermont State Police and members of the public are trying understand why he died. Davidonis believes the trooper who deployed the Taser is at fault; last week she sued the officer for negligence, trespassing and misuse of his Taser.
What we know from the official record and interviews with the Davidonis family is this. Mason called Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center at 3 p.m on June 20 and told hospital officials he thought he might hurt himself or someone else. No one knows what led him to become so distraught.
The hospital called police. Shortly afterward, Davidonis got a phone call as she was working on her friend Patty Birch’s hair. At that moment, what had been a routine day for the Theford hairdresser became a nightmare.
The dispatcher told Davidonis to go to her house right away. But she was loath to go by herself because she had had a run-in with the Vermont State Police 10 years ago. (At the time, she was suicidal, and when troopers tried to take her into protective custody she claims they hit her in order to get her to comply.)
Davidonis asked Birch to drive her home. There they found the state police looking for Mason, who had shut himself in the house. Officers were peering through the windows and couldn’t get him to come to the door. Davidonis explained to Charles Schulze, an officer at the scene, that Mason was epileptic and he was acting out after the previous day’s seizure. Officers told her to stay on the property to keep tabs on Mason, and then they left.
But Davidonis didn’t want to leave Birch stranded at her house, so she decided to go back to the salon to retrieve her car. She removed the phones from the house to prevent Mason from making calls while she was out. Her son, Alecks, met her at the salon and they were about to go back when dispatch called to tell her the officers had returned to the house because Davidonis had left — against their advice.
When Davidonis returned, there were four troopers on her property looking for Mason. She walked up to Schulze, who seemed to be in charge, and asked him to direct the other officers to leave.
“I hear screaming, ‘Over here, over here,’ and I hear ‘Get on the ground,’” she recalls.
Senior Trooper David Shaffer had found Mason.
Davidonis and Alecks ran toward the sound of troopers yelling. They saw Mason sitting on a small hill, just past the edge of the patio he made for the family. Shaffer was pointing an assault rifle at Mason; another officer stood to Shaffer’s left with a pistol. The state police didn’t know if Mason was armed. (Davidonis said in an interview she did not keep guns on the property.)
Mason stood up, his hands open above his head “like a surrender,” Davidonis says, and said to the officers, “Shoot me.”
But Shaffer didn’t shoot when he saw Mason was unarmed. Instead, he drew his Taser X-26, aimed at Mason’s chest and activated the stun gun.
Five seconds later, Mason was on the ground, unresponsive. Davidonis was being restrained by her son some 30 feet away, screaming at Shaffer, “You killed him.” The trooper tried to resuscitate Mason using CPR, but he was already dead.
A new tool for law enforcement
The state equipped the entire uniform division of the Vermont State Police force with Tasers in April 2011. The state police’s tactical team has had Tasers since 2006 or 2007, according to Thomas L’Esperance, head of the Vermont State Police.
Since the stun guns were distributed to all troopers they have been deployed 33 times. The 32 prior incidents did not injure the victims — aside from minor burns and skin punctures.
Was the Taser responsible for Mason’s death? State officials are unsure; they’re waiting for test results from an autopsy on June 21. The tests are expected to take six to eight weeks, at which time the New Hampshire medical examiner’s office will declare an official cause of death.
According to 81 “use of force” reports released by the Vermont State Police earlier this month, 25 percent of officers have unholstered their Tasers in the line of duty. Since the uniform division of the state police was equipped with Tasers in April 2011, 53 officers have either deployed their Tasers or displayed them (unholstered their Taser, but did not deploy it in the incident). In all, 154 officers have never reached for a Taser.
Because police incident forms are not filled out in a consistent way, it’s unclear how many of the subjects who were tased could have had medical and/or mental health problems. This information is often redacted from state police incident reports.
While the majority of officers who have drawn Tasers have only done so once over the 15 months since most were equipped, eight officers have had two incidents involving a Taser, one has had three, four have had four, and one – David Shaffer – has had five.
June 20 was the first time Shaffer ever deployed his Taser in the line of duty. The four previous incidents were “displays.”
Col. Thomas L’Esperance, the top officer in the Vermont State Police, says it’s a matter of chance. Some officers happen to respond to a higher frequency of violent situations, he said.
“Each call, in and of itself, brings its own challenges,” he said. “The level of violence in any given call is unique to that call.”
In one case, an officer fired a Taser at an injured bobcat that was on the back seat of a Mercedes Benz sedan. The animal was later shot by a game warden.
L’Esperance compared state police Taser use to gun violence. Some rookie officers have been exposed to multiple firearm encounters with subjects in the course of their work, while others have been in the force 20 years or more without ever answering a call that led to guns drawn.
“It’s one of those things that happens where you might be that person who gets the call to respond to more violent situations than others,” he said.
While L’Esperance said he didn’t see a problem with some officers using Tasers more frequently than others, he said the VSP investigates every incident as thoroughly as the last, and repeat use is monitored.
Another factor that might make some officers more likely to bring out their Taser on a call, L’Esperance said, is that the majority of state police work alone. A trooper without backup might be more inclined to use a Taser to gain compliance from a subject.
Officers with four or more Taser incidents over the time period in question don’t seem to center around one place or geographical type. Shaffer is based out of the Bradford barracks, serving mostly rural communities along the New Hampshire border. Drew Cota works out of the St. Albans barracks, and he’s deployed his Taser within the barracks, but also as far away as South Hero. Wayne Godfrey is part of the Shaftsbury barracks and has deployed his Taser on Main Street in Bennington as well as in the rural town of Sunderland. Matthew Hill, also of the St. Albans barracks, and Travis Valcourt, based in Brattleboro, have deployed Tasers in varied environments and circumstances as well.
Tasers in mental health crises
The call Shaffer and other officers responded to a month ago didn’t come from Mason or his neighbors; it came from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. Davidonis and three of her children said Mason was frequently “not himself” in the 48-hour period after a seizure.
There are at least six incidents in which an officer deployed a Taser on a subject who was either suicidal or in a mental health crisis, though that number is not definitive because incident reports are often redacted or incomplete.
On March 29, 2011, Trooper Robert McKenna and another officer responded to a call in Mount Holly in which a man in mental health crisis was “agitated,” “exhibit[ing] mood swings (from polite to confrontational),” and was convinced the Department of Defense “was taking part in a complex conspiracy against him,” according to McKenna’s report.
The man, Nick Turco, was suicidal. His mother called 911 when she found him in the closed garage with the engine of a vehicle running. Earlier in the night, he’d put a gun in his mouth. Turco had been drinking and had a .06 percent blood alcohol content when officers responded to the call.
McKenna and Trooper Hall were greeted on the front porch by Turco’s grandmother Rita. She told them Nick was inside, and he was “wild.” The officers entered the house to assess the situation. Turco was in the kitchen speaking to his father, and he was visibly upset. The officers tried to talk to him, but he became confrontational during a half-hour conversation, then walked out onto the porch to smoke a cigarette.
While they were out on the porch, Turco told the troopers they weren’t going to take him in, and if they wanted to they’d have to do it “cowboy style.”
When Turco turned his back, McKenna unholstered his Taser.
The state police incident report narrative confirms that officers McKenna and Hall both tased Turco and asserts that Turco later admitted that he stopped struggling because the Tasers were overwhelming him with pain.
I told him that we were not going to fight with him and that we could not in good conscience leave him to sleep in his own house as we wanted. During this approximate time he finished his cigarette and while his back was turned, I unholstered my Taser and held it by my right leg. [Subject] walked off the front porch to an area in front of the garage where I aimed my Taser at his midsection. [Subject’s brother] moved himself in front of his brother rendering my shot unavailable. Trooper Hall pushed Nathan aside and Nick began to run away. We chased him into the back yard where I fired my first Taser cartridge at him. [Subject] turned around briefly and then continued to run away. Based on his behavior it was clear that the Taser did not achieve the desired NMI. I loaded my second cartridge and after once again getting within close proximity I fired a second cartridge. [Subject] turned around again, fell to the ground and then immediately stood up and began to run again. [Subject] ran to the front of the house and then onto the front porch (followed more closely this time by Trooper Hall). As [subject] reached the front door, Trooper Hall fired his first Taser cartridge at [subject.] [Subject] entered the house and closed the front door behind him.
State working to improve mental health response
In the wake of 2004 legislation that appropriated $50,000 to enhance officers’ training in dealing with mental health crises, the Vermont State Police began offering a six-and-a-half hour training component specifically related to mental health crises. The training was added to the police academy starting with the 82nd graduating class, but Vermont State Police officers who had graduated previously were not required to return to the academy for the training.
Shaffer graduated in the 81st class in 2006 and has not since returned for Act 80 training. Legislation proposed this year by Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, would have required any officer carry a Taser to have completed the training, but the proposal never made it out of committee.
Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said the Act 80 training provides officers with even more tools to help them deal with a situation.
“I don’t think I could ever be in a position where I would say that training is not valuable,” Flynn said. He stopped short of saying it should be mandatory, though. Flynn said that while the training is valuable, the logistics of getting officers the time required to go to the academy to complete the training is a complicating factor.
“We are trying to get people to get all the Act 80 training that we can. One thing is that it’s a matter of time availability and just manpower allocation that we’re looking at,” he said.
Flynn emphasized that the state police’s policies on Taser use are not permanent, and the Department of Public Safety is always seeking to improve them, if possible.
“Our policy is not something that’s etched into stone. Policies are something that are subject to change, they’re meant to be fluid documents,” he said.
Flynn and L’Esperance both pointed to a revision of state police policy after the April 2011 tasing of Tim Bernier, a 23-year-old with Down syndrome.
Bernier, who L’Esperance said had a history of violence, refused to get dressed for caregivers and pulled away when troopers tried to intervene. Feeling threatened, a trooper deployed his Taser against him. The incident sparked public outrage.
“The tasing that took place with Mr. Bernier up in the Northeast Kingdom. We recognized there were problems with that,” L’Esperance said.
In response, the state police changed their policy to incorporate language that would stop officers from tasing subjects with cognitive disabilities. There is no language relating to mental health crises currently, but Flynn said it wasn’t out of the question.
“Our policy is something that we always need to be looking at. That’s the value to our use of force forms,” he said.
Now, amid public outcry in the wake of Mason’s death, state police are trying to improve their response through increased collaboration with mental health professionals.
When asked in an interview if it takes public outrage to spur change to police policies, Flynn said, “Absolutely not.”
“Events cause us to look back and review it, but they can’t drive change every time,” he said.
This spring, Flynn said he and Patrick Flood, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, met with law enforcement and mental health professionals at a conference called “Law Enforcement Meets Mental Health” to talk about how the two groups might work more closely in dealing with crisis situations.
Mary Moulton, deputy commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, said the conference was “heavily attended by law enforcement,” with about 180 law enforcement officers present.
Moulton said a new protocol will increase collaboration between police and mental health professionals. The protocol requires whichever agency is contacted first about a psychiatric crisis – local mental health agencies or law enforcement – to contact the other and decide together how best to respond.
“Law enforcement out in the field face some very dangerous situations, and … the key really is knowing when you go out to a crisis where it’s a dangerous scene when it’s safe enough” for mental health professionals to come in, Moulton said.
The Legislature set aside $8 million for mobile crisis response teams this year.
Clusters of use
View Taser use by Vermont State Police in a larger map
Have Google Earth? Click here to download and view this map with an overlay of the VSP Barracks juristictions.
A geographical analysis of state police Taser incidents shows distinct patterns. Predictably, there were relatively tighter groupings of use around the state’s largest concentrations of population in Rutland and Chittenden counties.
An analysis across the 12 state police barracks showed a cluster in a rural community. There were seven incidents at the Bradford barracks (five of which involved Shaffer). Based on the combined population of all towns within each barracks’ coverage area, Bradford had more than four times more Taser incidents per capita than the state average.
The Middlesex barracks, on the other hand, had two incidents over the 15-month period, less than a third of the statewide, per capita average.
Lt. Paul White, who heads up the Middlesex barracks, said Taser practices in his barracks shouldn’t be any different than those employed by barracks around the state.
“I was not aware that we had the lowest,” he said. “Our training as an agency is designed to be uniform statewide. So the troopers here aren’t trained any differently than the troopers at any of the other 11 stations.”
The calls answered by the Middlesex barracks, White said, are “diverse across the board.” Unlike Williston, which White said was primarily a highway patrol barracks, Middlesex serves surrounding towns and responds to a wide variety of calls.
Asked about other barracks in the state which had higher numbers, White said that while “every geographic area of the state is a little bit different and has its own features,” he couldn’t think of a reason for discrepancies.
“The training is uniform, the use of force policy and the criteria is uniform [across all state police], so theoretically, the population of the state being generally uniform … I wouldn’t expect to see large variations in use like that,” White said.
Lt. Russell Robinson, who is in charge of the Bradford barracks, did not respond to requests for comment.
While some officers or barracks are using Tasers more than others, Public Safety Commissioner Flynn said the numbers are reasonable.
“They seem to indicate that our troopers are exercising good discretion. They’re using it as tools that are essential for them to be able to do their jobs,” he said.
The important thing to remember, both Flynn and L’Esperance said, is that while hindsight is 20/20, officers in tense situations on calls often don’t have enough time to evaluate the situation perfectly. Training is key in such situations, Flynn said.
“They don’t have a lot of opportunity to weigh out a lot of factors and contemplate them, so they go back to their training,” he said.
According to Stephanie Dasaro, the public information officer for the state police, troopers investigated “nearly 72,000 incidents” during the time period in question, not including traffic stops. While 33 deployments over a 15-month period is relatively few, Flynn said he’s always aiming lower.
“I don’t think I could say that I’m happy with any deployments, because in a perfect world there wouldn’t be any deployments,” he said. If all subjects were compliant, he said, Tasers would be unnecessary.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he thought it was suspicious that a small number of officers would find themselves in violent situations so much more frequently than others.
“What I read about police interactions in the news, I would not draw the conclusion that a small percentage of the officers are in violent situations,” he said.
Shaffer did not respond to requests for comment for this story. He returned to work in June after three days of paid administrative leave, according to the Burlington Free Press.
Despite calls for moratorium, administration firmly in support of Tasers
A week after Mason’s death, a group of mental health and civil liberties advocates held a joint press conference to call for a moratorium on Taser use by Vermont law enforcement officers until the state’s policies could be more thoroughly examined.
The group called for a uniform standard across law enforcement agencies in Vermont for the use of force as well as an independent civilian body to review incidents of Taser use and deadly force.
Floyd Nease, executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health and Addiction Recovery, said he joined the group calling for a moratorium because he sees a troubling pattern.
“I am part of the group that’s been asking for a moratorium, and the reason we’re asking for a moratorium is that it’s hard in any individual case, being outside of what happened … it’s very difficult to second guess any particular decision by a police officer, but there appears to be a pattern of Taser use against people with mental illness that should be looked at very, very closely,” Nease said. “What we know is that most of the policies around Taser use that are in place at different police agencies are policies written by insurance companies, not policies written with an eye toward when you’re in a situation with an individual who might have some mental health issues.”
At a press conference hours after the group called for Taser use to be put on hold, Shumlin cast the idea aside.
“I don’t support a moratorium,” he said. “What I do support is as much involvement as we can get to ensure that we have policies in place with law enforcement and with the Vermont community that are sensible, compassionate and solve the challenges that we have together. And I just want to reiterate this: Listen, Tasers are an important tool in law enforcement in Vermont. What a Taser allows a police officer to do is to slow someone down that is threatening people, harming people, without possibly inflicting a gunshot wound, so Tasers have a purpose. The Vermont State Police is the best police force in the country. They’ve been trained in how to use Tasers. As you know, as we do in any tragedy – my heart goes out to the family, to the Mason family that has been through so much – but in any tragedy we always do an internal investigation to figure out what we could have done differently, if there was anything we could have done differently, and to look at the policies surrounding anything that would help avert future tragedy.”
Morgan Brown, a citizen advocate for the mentally ill who was at the press conference, was not satisfied with this response.
“I remember sitting in the press conference,” he said, “and it’s disappointing, you know, because what really should be happening is there should be a discussion with certain parties. The administration might say, ‘Well why haven’t they talked to us?’”
So Brown tried another approach, creating an online petition in support of a moratorium on Taser use. If a prominent few weren’t enough to convince the governor, maybe sheer numbers would do it.
The petition gathered more than 1,100 signatures, including former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin. When recently asked if the hundreds who had signed on, including Kunin, had swayed his thinking, Shumlin said, “No.”
At a July 17 presser, Shumlin stays firm on Tasers
Advocates call for moratorium on Taser use
Vermont State Police describe Macadam Mason’s death: