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Editorial: Taser Tragedy

Law enforcement officials have investigated fellow law enforcement officials and determined that the state trooper who killed Macadam Mason last June by shooting him with a Taser did nothing criminal. This is the standard outcome of such investigations in Vermont.

To say that the decision is unsurprising is not to suggest that we know whether it is right or wrong. As has also become routine, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell is not opening the investigative file, making it impossible to evaluate the thoroughness and fair-mindedness of the investigation. (Sorrell has supported changing state law to open the files of closed investigations into alleged police misconduct but says he didn’t disclose them in this case out of concern for their impact on pending civil lawsuits.)

Among the findings that are impossible to assess is the central one: that Trooper David Shaffer was entitled to use a “reasonable amount of force” — the Taser that delivered 50,000 volts of electricity to Mason and, according to an autopsy, killed him by causing cardiac arrest — because the trooper had reason to believe that he was in “immediate danger of bodily harm” and the use of force was necessary to protect himself. The investigation conducted by the state police and reviewed independently by Sorrell and Orange County State’s Attorney William Porter, determined that an unarmed Mason — who had taken two steps toward Shaffer after refusing to comply with orders to lay on the ground — constituted a threat that justified shooting him with a Taser at a distance of 6 to 10 feet. Of course, this version of events conflicts with the accounts of Theresa Davidonis, Mason’s partner and the owner of the property, and her son, who both have told the Valley News that Mason raised his hands and presented no threat to Shaffer.

One thing that remains beyond dispute is that something went terribly wrong that day, even if it did not rise to the level of criminal conduct. The state police were dispatched to the Thetford property after being notified by Dartmouth-Hitchock Medical Center that Mason had called and was threatening to harm himself and others. After arriving, troopers summoned Davidonis, who was working nearby, and she informed them that there were no firearms on the property. Davidonis also asked them to leave. The troopers did so, but they returned later “to personally confirm that Mason was okay,” according to the attorney general’s statement.

Davidonis also says she informed Trooper Charles Schultze, the commanding officer at the scene, that Mason had a history of seizures — he had suffered one the day before — which should have raised questions about his ability to predictably respond to police orders. State police guidelines warn against using Tasers on people who suffer cognitive impairments. Yet the report determined that Shaffer had not been informed of Mason’s seizure history. Moreover, Shaffer, who was among the troopers who had received special training in Taser use, shot Mason in the chest, contrary to the recommendations of the Taser manufacturer.

In light of Mason’s distraught condition and his previous threats, it could be argued that the troopers’ decision to return to the property wasn’t unreasonable, although they had been informed there were no firearms and Davidonis had asked them to leave. In any case, the manner in which the state police conducted the “welfare check” seems unnecessarily confrontational and provocative. Shaffer encountered Mason in the backyard while “securing the perimeter.” This was done with an M-4 rifle that he initially raised and pointed at Mason before “transitioning” to his Taser. Without access to the investigative file, a disinterested party has no way of judging between the conflicting accounts of Davidonis and law enforcement, but still can’t help but feel uncomfortable about what seems to have been a by-the-book, military-style law enforcement operation in response to what was really a medical crisis.

Considering that state troopers had been informed by Davidonis that she preferred handling the situation without their help, that they had been told about Mason’s medical condition but apparently didn’t adequately communicate that information among themselves, and that their use of the Taser conflicted with both their own and the manufacturer’s recommendations, it’s not surprising that Mason’s death has generated at least one lawsuit.

And because this is the second fatal encounter in the Upper Valley between state police and a person who seemed to require a much more nimble response — we refer to the equally horrific case of Joseph Fortunati, a mentally ill man shot to death in Corinth in 2006 — Vermonters can only hope that the attorney general’s decision does not diminish state officials’ resolve to prevent future such incidents. There are encouraging signs: an announcement last July that mental health officials would be involved whenever these situations arise, and Sorrell’s scheduling of a public forum on Taser use. We hope that state officials’ pledges to undertake corrective action prove more effective than the ones they made after Fortunati’s death.