Aldermen consider Taser proposal

The Public Safety Committee of the Board of Aldermen met Wednesday to discuss the proposals of the Deadly Force Task Force, which were released last November in response to incidents of lethal force used by police officers.

Formed after a string of deadly confrontations between police and residents, some of whom were mentally ill, the task force outlined nine major recommendations. Its proposals included the expansion of the Crisis Intervention Training model, better cooperation with mental health institutions and personnel, better distribution of information regarding shootings, and a pilot project that will introduce Tasers to the New Haven Police Department.

Members of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee met yesterday to consider their response to the Deadly Force Task Force’s findings.  The discussion was part of an effort to reduce the number of altercations in which New Haven police officers resort to lethal force.
Barrett Williams
Members of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee met yesterday to consider their response to the Deadly Force Task Force’s findings. The discussion was part of an effort to reduce the number of altercations in which New Haven police officers resort to lethal force.

Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah, who headed the task force, discussed the ramifications of the proposal. He stressed the importance of the proposal to both the mentally disabled and New Haven residents living in neighborhoods where shootings most frequently occur.

Committee members opened the night’s meeting with a discussion about the proposed expansion of the Crisis Intervention Training model. The so-called CIT involves 40 hours of training for police officers on working with the mentally disabled. Some aldermen said the training would take police officers off the streets for an extended period of time when they could be patrolling, but most said they felt it would be worth it.

Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison, who directs several regional mental health and substance abuse agencies, said he saw great potential for the use of Tasers in New Haven, especially given the relatively high number of mentally disabled residents in any densely populated city.

“With appropriate safeguards in place, constituents would be better off if officers had Tasers instead of handguns,” Mattison said. “In a number of cases that I have dealt with, use of a Taser instead of a handgun would have saved lives.”

The Taser pilot project trained 45 officers, hand-selected by NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz, to use the devices. But New Haven has decided to present the proposal to the community before training all its officers to use Tasers.

Mattison also stressed the need for a protocol specifying how to deal with violent, mentally challenged members of the community. On several occasions, police have taken the mentally disabled to local emergency rooms or arrested those who were engaging in unlawful conduct, only to release them back into the community within a matter of hours. Mattison said anything the city can do to aid in the cooperation between hospitals, mental health workers and the police department will help the situation.

Moses Nelson, vice chairman of the task force, said he joined the task force to help bridge better relations between the police and the New Haven community.

“I joined this committee to encourage communication from the police department with the community so that they know what happened the whole way through,” he said. “If you’re more knowledgeable, you’re more likely to cooperate and engage in less hostile conduct toward officers.”

Barbara Fair, one of the most vocal residents in attendance at the meeting, said she has long protested what she sees as a history of police brutality in New Haven. She said she doubts that these meetings will actually change the actions of police officers, but she admires the effort of certain aldermen — including Shah — who have made an effort to curb the violence.

“Residents here don’t have any faith in [the police], and I’m not sure I have much faith in the aldermen, either,” she said.

The city’s first shipment of 50 Tasers, which was approved by the Board of Aldermen in early March, is expected to hit the streets this month.

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