GREENFIELD — One of two Greenfield police officers under investigation since an Indianapolis man died after being shot with a Taser hadn’t trained with the weapon in four years. The other officer on the scene that night hadn’t been through a Taser course since 2015, records show.
The Greenfield Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in the county that doesn’t follow Taser manufacturer guidelines recommending annual training, records reviewed by the Daily Reporter showed. The company says annual training is necessary to “reduce the likelihood (of) death or serious injury.”
The remaining eight police departments covering Hancock County follow manufacturer Axon’s guidelines, which state annual Taser training — not provided by the state’s law enforcement academy — ensures an officer knows the latest information about how and where to safely aim a Taser, which delivers a five-second shock to immobilize an unruly suspect.
Medical experts have not yet determined whether use of the 50,000-volt stun gun on Douglas Wiggington contributed to the 48-year-old’s death after a confrontation with police on May 12, but newly appointed Police Chief Jeff Rasche says he won’t wait for that ruling to overhaul training policies he believes are inadequate.
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Taser use among county departments is rare. Greenfield’s 42 officers average fewer than one incident per month. In 2016, they fired their Tasers seven times. Over the course of 2015, 10 times, records show.
Comparatively, 65 Taser-carrying sheriff’s deputies used their Tasers five times in 2016, seven times in 2015. That includes on the road, at the county jail and inside the courthouse, where they provide security.
Such infrequent use makes the annual training, a six-hour class that includes practicing with the weapon, even more important, Rasche said. The refresher course helps officers stay comfortable with the weapon and provides the most updated medical research, which has changed how Tasers have been used over the years, Rasche said.
The two officers who responded to 911 calls about Wiggington stumbling along State Street on the city’s south side — Wigginton was shot by one of the officers’ stun guns during the scuffle that followed — were trained following department procedures, Rasche said. Neither violated department policy.
The Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, which provides training for all full-time law enforcement officers in the county, teaches best practices for firearm use but recommends police departments set their own guidelines for “less-lethal” weapons including Tasers.
The city department’s Taser policy states officers “shall successfully complete Greenfield Police Department-approved training” but does not require officers to refresh their training each year.
Months before Wiggington’s death, a Greenfield police instructor emailed administrators saying he worried the department’s training with the weapon was lacking.
‘If something happens’
On Jan. 6 — three weeks before Rasche became chief — Patrolman Corey Decker, one of three Greenfield officers certified to teach stun-gun techniques, emailed the incoming leader to express concerns about how irregularly officers practiced with the weapon, noting “our department is expired on Taser (training).”
Rasche was then a detective at the county sheriff’s department, preparing to take the helm at the police department following then-Chief John Jester’s retirement; Rasche was sworn in as chief on Jan. 24.
Decker — who declined to comment for this story — wrote “almost all officers working the road are not currently certified on Taser, and if something happens, … (it) could be an issue.”
The last time Greenfield held a department-wide Taser training session was in 2013, Rasche later learned. Officers that joined the department in the years following went through an initial class to carry a Taser, but no previously trained officers have sought instruction elsewhere to update their certification since 2013, to Rasche’s knowledge, he said.
By comparison, the department trains with its firearms four times a year to stay sharp. Practice with Tasers should be worked into that schedule at least once a year, he said.
“We identified a weakness,” he said. “Sometimes, we have to air our dirty laundry to get to the bottom of things. I want to fix this.”
On Feb. 14, at Rasche’s first appearance as chief before the Greenfield Board of Public Works and Safety, he requested $3,000 to purchase training equipment from the Taser manufacturer, which the board approved, records show.
The equipment arrived in mid-March, and Rasche said he told the department’s Taser-training officers to schedule a department-wide training as soon as possible.
On May 5, nine of the department’s 42 officers completed the refresher course, records show. The 33 remaining members had not yet completed training when Wiggington died one week later.
Police reports state Wiggington “suffered medical problems” after being hit with the Taser but provided no additional details.
Officers gave the man Narcan, medication used to counteract a drug overdose, then started CPR. Wiggington was taken by ambulance to Hancock Regional Hospital, where he later died, reports state. An autopsy was conducted, but the county coroner said he needs toxicology test results to officially determine the man’s cause of death.
Taser guidelines caution officers against using the weapon on people considered high risk for injury, including pregnant women, small children and the elderly, said Sheriff’s Maj. Brad Burkhart, who brought the first Tasers to the county in 2004 and remains one of the county’s longest-tenured instructors. But that list doesn’t include a person on drugs or alcohol.
That’s because the danger is not considered the actual blast from the Taser but the fall that follows, Burkhart said.
“What concrete are they gonna hit? Are they gonna fall into the roadway?” he cited as examples.
Taser use is actually encouraged on people who have become combative while using drugs or alcohol, he added. A person under the influence might continue to fight back because they can’t feel pain, but a Taser automatically stops them in their tracks, he said.
Burkhart estimated the majority of Taser incidents involve people who have been using drugs or alcohol.
“The guys that we deal with on the street are on something that causes them to not comply,” he said. “Their judgement is skewed because of the substance they’re on.”
Police have not disclosed witness statements about whether Wiggington had been abusing drugs or alcohol before he met up with police.
Officers are instructed to use Narcan only when they believe a person is suffering from an overdose, Rasche added.
Reports released to date do not indicate which officer used his Taser on Wiggington and how many times, only that Wiggington became unresponsive immediately after being hit with the stun gun.
Department records show responding officer Sgt. Rod Vawter was re-certified in Taser techniques in 2013. Patrolman Dillon Silver, who also assisted that night, was trained on the weapon’s use in 2015 when he joined the department.
After Wiggington’s death, Rasche ordered every member of the department to immediately complete Taser training. Those sessions started the morning after Wiggington died and were completed this week.
Meanwhile, Vawter and Silver remain on paid leave as the Indiana State Police investigation continues, a routine step following what officials call “an arrest-related death.”
The Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, which every full-time Greenfield police officer must attend, focuses its 16-week program on physical tactics, investigation techniques, squad car maneuvers and firearms training.
The academy does not train officers in Taser use or offer guidelines to police departments. Most law enforcement agencies rely on Taser manufacturer guidelines, considering Axon an authority on best practices, said Michael Lindsay, deputy director of the academy.
The company outlines recommendations — not requirements, said Jester, Rasche’s predecessor, who retired in September after eight years at Greenfield’s chief.
Jester said there was no particular reason the department didn’t require annual re-certification. His recollection is that his team trained with the device more regularly; every two years at the very least, he said.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Axon, agreed with Jester’s characterization: yes, he said, the Taser-related documents the company provides its customers are recommendations carrying no legal weight.
The company sells Tasers to more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the globe, and there is no system for tracking how those departments train officers with the devices, he said.
Still, when police departments choose to follow Axon’s recommendations, they’re learning from the people who know the weapon best, Tuttle said.
That’s Rasche’s rationale. And now that he’s leading the department, Greenfield’s officers will practice with their Tasers once a year using the manufacturer’s latest training materials, he said.
“They have the experience,” Rasche said. “If we don’t wanna go by that, then we might as well take ’em off our gun belts and put ’em in the closet.”
Axon releases training materials on its website for anyone to review. Certified Taser instructors are told to use the documents, which include a PowerPoint presentation that outlines how best to use the device and lists of product warnings and risks, to teach all Taser re-certification classes.
The company recognizes its Tasers pose a risk of injury or death, the documents state. However, a National Institute of Justice-funded study conducted in 2014 found that Taser-related deaths were uncommon. A panel of doctors was tasked with determining if a Taser “can contribute to or be the primary cause of death” in an arrest-related death, according to the institute. The panel determined that the risk of death was less than 0.25 percent.
All of the Taser training materials Axon provides are updated regularly and change based on the newest research, Rasche said. That makes refresher courses a must in order to stay up to date, he said.
He cited “dart to the heart” — an early recommendation from the company reminding officers to aim at a person’s chest — as one example. That method is now regarded as unsafe. The latest training tells officers to avoid aiming their Taser at a person’s face or chest and to hit a suspect’s lower body or back to lower the risk of cardiac arrest, Rasche said.
The cartridges used for Taser training cost about $30 a piece and can be purchased only from Axon.
For the Greenfield police department’s 42-member force, that brings the cost to roughly $2,500 each year.
The department’s annual training budget was $57,000 last year, an amount covering dues to different training organization as well as any equipment needed specifically for training, including Taser cartridges, gun ammunition and other supplies. It comes to about $1,500 per officer, per year, Rasche said.
Axon officials recognize that annual re-certification can present a burden for police departments, Tuttle said.
Some larger departments have told the company it is a costly undertaking to buy cartridges for every officer for annual re-certification; smaller departments say it’s hard to take officers off the road to complete the training each year, Tuttle said.
‘We are grieving’
It could be as long as eight weeks — the time it takes for toxicology test results to be released — before Wiggington’s family knows exactly how he died.
Department leaders want those answers just as much; the man’s death has affected the whole department, Rasche said.
“While the family grieves, we are grieving as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rasche has been working with other department administrators to finalize the updated language for the department’s new training policy.
Ensuring officers know the best way to use the tools they have is promise a police department should make to the community it serves, he said.
“It’s our obligation — it’s our responsibility — to our department, to our officers and to the public,” Rasche said. “It’s easy to let this stuff slip by. That’s not an excuse.”
Taser use among police officers in Hancock County is rare, with the county’s two largest departments (the Greenfield Police Department and Hancock County Sheriff’s Department) averaging fewer than one Taser incident per month. Here’s a look at use of the weapon in recent years.
Greenfield Police Department: 42 Taser-carrying officers
2012: 11 times
2013: 6 times
2014: 7 times
2015: 10 times
2016: 7 times
Hancock County Sheriff’s Department: 65 Taser-carrying officers
2012: 5 times on the road, 11 times in the jail
2013: 5 times on the road, 9 times in the jail
2014: 5 times on the road, 3 times in the jail
2015: 3 times on the road, 4 times in the jail
2016: 2 times on the road, 2 times in the jail, 1 time at the county courthouse
Source: Greenfield Police Department, Hancock County Sheriff’s Department