Report: Man who died after being shot with Taser had history of medical problems, was high on drugs at time


GREENFIELD – Two Greenfield officers have been cleared of wrongdoing in the death of a man they shot with a Taser, officials say.

Officers Sgt. Rod Vawter and Patrolman Dillon Silver have returned to work at the police department after an internal and criminal investigation of the incident arrived at the same conclusion: The pair did nothing wrong in the moments leading up to the death of 48-year-old Douglas Wiggington.

Wiggington of Indianapolis died after a scuffle with Vawter and Silver last spring. The officers shot Wiggington — who was high on cocaine and meth, toxicology screens revealed — with a Taser after he became combative. He later died at a hospital, police said.

Wiggington’s death was caused by four factors, including several underlying medical problems, his death certificate states.

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“Discharge from a conducted electrical weapon” is listed among the causes of Wiggington’s death; 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.

Though the death certificate does not detail Wiggington’s level of intoxication, it confirms the suspicions of witnesses who called 911 concerned about the safety of a man they saw stumbling along State Road 9 one evening in mid-May.

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 their cellphone. Investigators reviewed the footage, determined Vawter and Silver acted appropriately, including trying to resuscitate Wiggington after he collapsed.

Immediately after the device was fired, Vawter and Silver realized Wiggington was suffering from a medical issue. They recognized his symptoms as a possible overdose and administered a shot of Narcan — a medication used to counteract opioids — and started CPR.

Dispatch records show Wiggington had a pulse when he was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Hancock Regional Hospital. He later died there, officials said.

Taser’s manufacturer, Axon (formerly Taser International), recognizes that use of stun guns poses a risk of injury or death even though it is considered a “less-lethal weapon,” according to a list of product warnings.

The company’s guidelines advise against using a Taser on people considered high risk for injury, including pregnant women, small children and seniors. A Taser can be used on someone who is believed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and its use is encouraged when such substances make a person combative, local instructors say.

Those known to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs are already “medically compromised whether you use the Taser or not,” Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Axon, said.

Taser-related deaths are uncommon, experts say.

The National Institute of Justice in 2014 commissioned a panel of doctors to determine if a Taser “can contribute to or be the primary cause of death” in an arrest-related death, according to the institute. The panel found the risk of death was less than 0.25 percent.

Per department policies, Vawter and Silver were placed on administrative leave after Wiggington died pending an internal investigation by Greenfield officials and an external investigation by the Indiana State Police.

An autopsy was performed on Wiggington, toxicology screens were taken, and investigators spent weeks interviewing witnesses, reviewing camera footage and taking statements from both officers.

State officials concluded their investigation at the end of June and handed the findings over the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office for review, Sgt. Trent Smith said in an email to the Daily Reporter. At the same time, they notified the Greenfield department their case was closed.

With no suggestion Vawter and Silver had acted inappropriately, both officers were cleared to return to work, Rasche said. Each gave separate, final statements to department administrators and city human resources officials before being placed back on their work schedules July 1.

Both Vawter, an 11-year veteran of the department, and Silver, who has been with the police department for two years, declined to comment for this story.

Local prosecutors spent about two weeks reviewing the evidence state police presented and contacted Wiggington’s family with their decision, Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.

State investigators handed over their case file with no recommendation for criminal charges against Vawter or Silver. Eaton and his staff reviewed the investigators’ notes and agreed no crime was committed on the night Wiggington died, Eaton said.

There is no indication the officers violated department policies, either, said Greenfield Police Chief Jeff Rasche, who added his staff will give the state police records one final review before officially closing the case.

But Wiggington’s death has and will continue to have a major impact on the department, Rasche said.

While officers mourned the loss, department leaders took steps to improve Taser training and equipment in the aftermath of Wiggington’s death.

Rasche ordered every member of the department to immediately complete training after Wiggington died — a refresher some officers hadn’t had in several years. He also asked the Greenfield City Council to allot an extra $100,000 to buy 45 new stun guns to replace department’s 13-year-old devices — the oldest in use among county police agencies.

That request was preliminarily approved this week.

The department will use the man’s memory to ensure every officer is well-trained and appropriately prepared to make the call that Vawter and Silver were forced to make that night, Rasche said. They acted appropriately, and he wants ensure every officer on the force is prepared to do the same.

“I think they come to work every day and think about it,” Rasche said. “We have to make split-second decisions that attorneys, judges, juries have weeks to think about. I think it was the right decision.”