Family of man killed by taser threatens to sue

GREENFIELD — The family of an Indianapolis man who died after being shot with a Taser says the man’s civil rights were violated when he died last spring.

Douglas Wiggington, 48, of Indianapolis, was high on drugs when he became combative with two city officers in May, and they shot him with a Taser in an attempt to subdue him. He later died at an area hospital, officials said.

His relatives said the officers’ lack of training with Taser weapons led to the man’s demise and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. They plan to ask a judge to order the city to hand over an undisclosed amount of money to compensate them for their loss, records show.

Through their attorney, John Forbes of Indianapolis, the family has sent a notice of tort claim to the Greenfield Police Department. A tort claim is a legal notice sent in advance of a lawsuit, outlining a petitioner’s complaint.

The tort names Sgt. Rod Vawter and Patrolman Dillon Silver — the two officers involved in the scuffle with Wiggington — as being “involved” with Wiggington’s death. Greenfield Police Chief Jeff Rasche is also named as the “person responsible for administration of the Greenfield Police Department.”

Local prosecutors and Indiana State Police cleared Vawter and Silver of any wrongdoing following an investigation into Wiggington’s death. Neither acted inappropriately on the night he died; they followed their department policies and did not break any laws, investigators said.

But Greenfield’s internal investigation revealed irregular department training policies and devices that were 13 years old.

Prior to Wiggington’s death, Greenfield hadn’t had a department-wide Taser training session since 2013.

Vawter, who fired the Taser that night, was re-certified in Taser techniques during a training in 2013. Silver was trained on the weapon’s use in 2015 when he joined the department.

By comparison, the remaining eight police departments in Hancock County followed manufacturer Axon’s guidelines, which call for annual Taser training to ensure an officer knows the latest information about the device.

Additionally, Greenfield’s officers were carrying the most outdated Tasers in the county. Their devices were purchased in the early 2000s and hadn’t been replaced since. Every other local department had replaced its Taser in at least the last five years.

Following Wiggington’s death, Rasche — who had been on the job less than six months at the time — ordered every member of the department to immediately retrain with the Taser and overhauled the department’s policies to require annual recertification. He also asked the Greenfield City Council to allow him to spend nearly $100,000 to purchase every officers a new Taser.

Wiggington’s family said that lack of training violated the man’s civil rights, and therefore, the department is responsible for the fatal injuries he suffered, according to the tort notice.

Forbes writes in the document that the Constitution maintains Wiggington, like all people, should have been treated with respect, not harmed or subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

“The use of a Taser by untrained persons violates those standards,” the tort reads.

Rasche said he wasn’t surprised to find the tort claim on his desk.

“Any time a situation like that arises, we expect that to come up,” he said. “I forwarded the tort to the appropriate people, and we’re waiting to see what comes next.”

Wiggington’s family has two years to decide whether to file a lawsuit.

Coroners say Wiggington’s death was caused by four factors, including several underlying medical problems, according to his death certificate.

“Discharge from a conducted electrical weapon” is listed among the causes. The man also suffered from long-term heart and lung diseases, including cardiomyopathy and COPD, which led to his death as well, a forensic pathologist ruled.

“Acute cocaine and methamphetamine intoxication” at the time of Wiggington’s death is listed as a contributing factor; the death certificate does not detail Wiggington’s level of intoxication.

Witnesses who called 911 on the day of the incident were concerned about the safety of a man they saw stumbling along State Road 9.

The county 911 center received a call around 6:30 p.m. May 12 about a man — later identified as Wiggington — walking and occasionally falling to the ground in the 800 block of South State Street in Greenfield. The caller said he appeared to be under the influence, according to dispatch records.

Vawter and Silver responded to the call for help, and Wiggington put up a fight, according to reports.

Vawter fired a Taser at Wiggington twice hoping to subdue the man, officials said.

The incident was captured by both of the officers’ in-car cameras, and a witness at the scene that night took footage of the incident using a cellphone. Investigators reviewed the footage, determined Vawter and Silver acted appropriately, including trying to resuscitate Wiggington after he collapsed.

They recognized his symptoms as a possible overdose and administered a shot of Narcan — a medication used to counteract opioids — and started CPR, officials said.

At press time, Forbes had not returned a call for comment on this story.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.