State police are investigating whether a trooper’s use of a Taser stun gun caused a Thetford’s man’s death Wednesday.
Police are also investigating if the use of force was justified in the incident.
The death of 39-year-old Macadam Mason of Thetford appears to be the first fatality involving an electronic stun gun deployed by a state police officer.
But Colonel Thomas L’Esperance, the director of the state police, said it’s not yet clear whether the Taser shock was the direct cause of Mason’s death.
"We need to get the understanding of exactly what took place leading up to the deployment, what took place after the deployment, what was the cause of death," L’Esperance told reporters. "And I assure you we’re going to look into that."
L’Esperance said the state police responded to Mason’s house after he called the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and threatened to harm himself and others. L’Esperance said troopers also learned that Mason may have had weapons and was prepared to use them.
Mason left the house and went into nearby woods. But after several hours, he returned and an officer ordered Mason to the ground. L’Esperance said the officer lowered his firearm and drew his Taser when he saw Mason was unarmed. L’Esperance described what happened next.
"The trooper continued to tell Mr. Mason to get on his stomach at which time Mr. Mason stood up and moved toward the trooper with a closed fist yelling aggressively at the trooper," he said. "The trooper and Mr. Mason were now less than ten feet from one another. The trooper continued with verbal commands for Mr. Mason to get on the ground, and after several failed attempts for Mr. Mason to comply the trooper deployed his Taser, striking Mr. Mason in the chest."
Mason fell and stopped breathing. The trooper administered CPR and an ambulance took Mason to the Dartmouth Hitchcock hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy was being conducted Thursday afternoon, but the results were not immediately available.
L’Esperance said state police officers are trained in the use of Tasers, including in dealing with people in distress or with mental illness. But he said troopers also have to defend themselves.
"Certainly there are ways to de-escalate crisis and we go through a process to try to de-escalate a crisis," he said. "At the same time you have to appreciate and respect the job that’s being done out there by the men and women of law enforcement that they’re placed in these positions … We’re going to answer the call. At the same time, we need to protect ourselves."
Vermont State Police were issued Tasers in April of last year. L’Esperance said the stun guns – which immobilize by discharging 50-thousand volts – were deployed 32 times last year by state police. So far this year, police have used the weapons 16 times.
The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says Tasers should only be used when deadly force is justified. Allen Gilbert is the group’s executive director.
"Tasers are not safe weapons. They’re called less lethal, according to the manufacturer, Taser International," he said. "They are capable of causing death and serious bodily injury. They should only be used on a limited number of people. The barbs should not be shot at someone’s chest because of the risk of causing heart problems."
L’Esperance said Mason had a criminal record, including domestic assault. He said the incident is being investigated by the state police and the results will be turned over to the attorney general and to the Orange County state’s attorney.
UPDATE: Authorities have named the state trooper who fired the stun gun. Police say the trooper, David Shaffer, fired when Macadam Mason came at him during a standoff on Wednesday.