Tasering police officer not fully trained for mental health crises

David Shaffer deployed his service Taser X-26 into the chest of Macadam Mason, 39, of Thetford. Mason's significant other says he dropped dead on the spot. Creative Commons Photo/Flickr user hrcanska.

David Shaffer deployed his service Taser X-26 into the chest of Macadam Mason, 39, of Thetford. Mason’s significant other says he dropped dead on the spot. Creative Commons Photo/Flickr user hrcanska

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.

Taylor Dobbs

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  • Among the things this article — as initially posted — does not include mention of and, is certainly related, was the recent call by disability and civil rights advocates as well as others calling for a moratorium on the use of Tasers by the Vermont State Police as well as all local law enforcement agencies across the state.

    In the meantime, both since it will take time to roll out what is being described within the article and elsewhere in the news recently about what is happening now as well as also those elements that will gradually be put in place over the next few months or so and, more importantly, what also should be done in addition as is being called for by those advocating for the moratorium:

    Given that the Tasers remain out on the street and it is clear pose an imminent risk and danger to those the weapons could be used against, the use of Tasers by police officers within Vermont at the state and local should be ceased.

    An online petition seeking such is available (via SignOn.org):

    View the archived video of the press conference (via YouTube, via vtdigger):

    Read the advocates’ moratorium statement, which goes into great detailer about why the moratorium is being call for and is sorely needed as well as specifically what is being sought (via Document Cloud):

    For his part, when asked by reporters about it that very afternoon during a press conference he was holding at the time, Governor Peter Shumlin outright rejected the need for a moratorium and staunchly defended the use of Tasers by law enforcement.

    View the archived video of Governor Shumlin’s comments, relating to Tasers as well as the advocates call for a moratorium on the use of them, provided in response to questions posed by reporters during that particular news conference (via YouTube):

    If you agree with the online petition, please consider signing onto it.

    In addition, feel free to share the petition with others whom you believe might be inclined to sign onto it as well, most particularly anyone living or working within Vermont.

    This would help in continuing to send Governor Peter Shumlin and his administration the message about why a “timeout on Tasers” is sorely needed across the state.

    If, in addition, you are inclined to do more than signing the petition and sharing word about it with others, consider also contacting Governor Shumlin directly on the subject (if you do however, please be brief and to the point as well as, most importantly, polite and civil as possible):

    It could also prove helpful to consider contacting your local state legislators as well as writing and submitting a letter to the editor to both your local weekly or daily newspaper as well as, if it is not the same publication, one or more of the statewide dailies. Remember, this also includes considering the submission of an opinion piece to vtdigger regarding these matters as well of course.

    The Vermont Advocacy Resource Toolkit, which I set up a while back for such purposes, might be useful in doing so:

  • it is good to see that the powers that be are responding to that poor man who was tasered to death

  • Tasers were originally sold to the public as being alternatives to deadly force. Nowadays these life threatening weapons are being used routinely as torture/compliance devices.

    Training is not the answer – criminal prosecution for use when deployed in a non-life threatening situation is needed (just as is required for a self-defense claim by you or I). We need our elected politicians and hired police to protect us from police brutality.

    • Patrick Cashman

      Tasers are not an alternative to deadly force. If an officer is in a situation so dire that deadly force is warranted, he/she should apply deadly force. Tasers are an alternative to other less lethal measures such as a baton or chemical spray and provide greater standoff for the officer. As such Tasers are part of the municipality’s responsibility to provide as safe a work environment as possible for their employees; the officers.

      • And that, Patrick, is why we have people being murdered or tortured by tasers – because the original sales pitch turned out to be a lie.

        • Patrick Cashman

          Please provide a link to such an original sales pitch. Not saying it doesn’t exist, merely can’t find it.

          • ‘“The notion that we stop using Tasers in Vermont I think would result in police officers having to use bullets more than Taser shots, and that’s not such a great idea,” Shumlin said at a press conference Wednesday.’ … http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2012/06/27/shumlin-defends-police-taser-use-group-calls-for-moratorium/

            ‘“What you’ve got to look at, which no one focuses on, is how many lives have been saved with Tasers instead of lethal force. We believe it’s significant,” said Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriff’s Association.’ … http://www.sj-r.com/top-stories/x1060309908/A-question-of-force-Tasers-can-be-deadly-but-can-also-save-lives?zc_p=1

            “Members of the 81st Security Forces Squadron are training on the use of Tasers, another alternative to deadly force as they patrol and protect the base and its people.” … http://www.keesler.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123094432

            These are just repetitions of the same tired arguments that were used to sell the tasers in the first place.

          • Patrick Cashman

            Great, thanks. However I am asking if there is anything that is an “original sales pitch” for Tasers that advertises Tasers as an alternative to deadly force. Not other people’s interpretation of what Tasers are intended to do. Again, not saying it doesn’t exist, merely asking where it is.

          • Patrick – I know you won’t believe what you don’t want to believe. I was alive and sentient in the last couple of decades and I heard and read the arguments made in public. Those comments mirror every one of them.

          • Patrick Cashman

            So…nothing then?
            Best regards

  • Christian Noll

    There was a time when the police were true peace officers. That time has come and gone.

    Its the public’s own fault in a way. We allow this to happen. We have people that will just blindly side with the police because they believe that the police can do no wrong.

    You really have to think twice today before calling the police. Oh, and when you have a complaint, they’ll try the: “Who you gonna call when you need help?” justification.

    So because we the public would call these people for assistance (something our tax dollars pay for) when we need help, for that reason, they are held to a lesser standard of accountability than the public who hires them.

    This is ridiculous.

  • Damian Kane

    Nice headline!

  • Essie Howe

    As a former psych nurse at VSH, I have seen other ill people who have been injured by Tasers. Get them off the street!
    Provide meaningful training to police officers!

  • Sam Adams

    How about waiting for a cause of death from the authorities? When you learn that the drugs in his system killed him and would have killed him regardless of the method the officer used to protect himself, will you change your mind about Tasers? Tasers save lives everyday. Every “Taser Death” headline is followed up months later with a little story about how the level of drugs assured death. Just before they die from the drugs some go crazy and, who you gonna call?

    • Aaron M. Kromash

      In the US and Canada alone there are more than 700 documented cases of death by Taser (see truthnottasers.blogspot.com). The notion that all of these deaths were just a coincidence and would have happened anyway, without tasering, is a ridiculous argument. Even since Macadam Mason’s death, there have been 3 more deaths by Taser in the US.

      The fact that some people have drugs in their system or other medical conditions placing them at risk of sudden death ia also a further proof that Tasers cannot be used “safely”, not a logical argument for indiscriminate tasering.

  • Jen Emerson

    I am tired of the seemingly endless police bashing in the comments of these stories. Is this a tragedy? Yes, absolutely. Is there more to the story than what the trooper says happened? Potentially. In a perfect world, would things have gone differently? Yes, we should hope.

    The issue that no one seems to acknowledge is that first and foremost, the officer is a person too, and needs to insure that they are not putting themselves in harm unnecessarily. If the officer felt that he was in danger, he would react to protect himself. If you have ever been in that kind of situation, you would know that it is very scary, even if you are trained to be used to it.

    I think that many people here will not believe that the officer was in danger, so let’s put that point aside and look at all the other options the officer had to try to control the situation:
    -Firing a gun. I’m sure that we can all agree that would be excessive.
    -Deploying the taser – and that’s why we are all here.
    -Using pepper spray. Pepper spray is one of the worst things you can ever experience. I have treated people in police custody who have been pepper sprayed and it is an awful experience. In this situation, it probably would have just made things worse.
    -Baton. Also not a great choice, causes bodily injury, and would have many people screaming about police brutality.
    -Talking. This sometimes works, it depends on the person that the officer is talking to. And we don’t have enough information about this particular case to be able to determine if this would have worked if the officer tried to talk this man down.

    Finally, while the article begins with the fact that this officer did not complete the 6.5 hour training course, it goes on to explain that he was not required to and that in his own academy training he completed a 4 hour version. Would 2.5 hours over the course of 6 years really have made a difference in this case?

    • Aaron M. Kromash

      Speaking to your last point, Jen, the small amount of extra training may not have made a difference. That is why the more comprehensive 40-hour “Crisis Intervention Training” applied in other states is the current best practice. Rep. Donohue’s bill was, as she states, just a very low baseline in addressing a problem that has far too little public recognition.

      The additional reminder that Rep. Donohue’s bill provides is that deaths by Taser are a known phenomenon and an inherent risk; in this sense, they are not accidents at all. By the time Macadam Mason was tasered, the “tragedy” of which you speak was over, not beginning.

  • Justin Boland

    Tasers are not even remotely safe.

    However, according to my reading of this account, it sounds pretty clear that Mason would have been shot with an assault rifle (why did they have assault rifles? what kind?) in the absence of a taser sidearm.

    This indicates that the argument that matters really IS about training…not necessarily tasers per se.

    • Christian Noll

      Justin I agree.

      If you look at all the other Taser cases in Vermont, you’d think the Vermont Police Academy needs some adjustment, removal or serious curriculum changes with regards to Tasers, Mental Crisis and Identifying diabetic shock.

      We could tone down the training at the academy or at least give them more on the above three situations.

      I don’t think we are “Police Bashing” here.

      Its up to the citizens to form our public security which includes reglementing the police.

      The last fifteen years in Vermont has seen a dramatic increase in these types of “Trageties.” In the same period of time we’ve also seen a sharp rise in heavy handed law enforcement in Vermont.

      Its time to address it, instead of just blindly siding with the police, which will only make it worse for our future generations, I see the following as the proper steps;

      1) Search and Rescue should go to a separate civilian entity. Ref. Levi Duclos

      2) More training at the academy on what Diabetic Shock is and how to identyfiy it. Ref. Rod Mayo, Wayne Burwell

      3) Mental Crisis intervention should go to some other entity than the police.

      4) Better training on Tasers OR ditch them for now. These aren’t “tools.” They’re leathal just like fire arms. Ref. Macadam Mason.

  • Christian Noll

    Tasering an unarmed senior citizen repeatedly doesn’t make me feel that much safer.


  • Chief Nate Pero

    What I need to know is why the last two State Police officers took over, when there were two other State Police officers there less then 28 feet from Macadam. They even yelled for the new police on the site not to shoot. Macadam was sitting on a bank when he stood up and took two steps onto flatter ground. He died before he hit the ground. The Police officer was less then 6 feet and aimed right at the chest. The whole story is not told.

  • Bud Haas

    Flynn still doesn’t get it.

    “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.

    The only people that have been unsafe are the ill folks who have been murdered by the cops.

    By the Way, has anyone heard or gotten a copy of the original phone call from Macadam to Hitchcock? Or the phone call to the state police? It would be interesting to see how that original call got translated by the police.

  • William Boardman

    Tasers are an instrument of torture.

    As a culture we seem to have become OK with that.

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