Community outcry following two fatal shootings by New Haven police in late 2004 recently prompted the Board of Aldermen to create a task force to investigate the use of “excessive force” by police.
Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison LAW ’68 said the task force, the members of which will be selected by the mayor, the president of the Board of Aldermen, New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz Jr. and the New Haven Police Union, will examine the shooting deaths of Mack Lucky Nov. 8 and Hiram Marrero Dec. 16.
Lucky was shot by off-duty New Haven Police officer Elliot Rosa in the elevator of his building on Howard Avenue. Rosa was part of the Officer in Residence program, which gives officers residence in public housing in exchange for providing security for the buildings. Marrero was shot by police after he wounded a caregiver at his group home for the mentally ill.
After the shootings, vocal community members requested the city consider police use of nonlethal weapons, revised procedures for police interaction with the mentally ill, and the future of the Officer in Residence program, Mattison said.
In response to community criticism — including a letter written on Jan. 10 by potential mayoral candidate Jeffrey Gorley demanding a review by the Justice Department — mayoral spokesman Derek Slap said the incidents are already being reviewed by the State Attorney’s office and the task force.
“Our police officers are dedicated professionals who should not be treated as political pinatas,” he said. “They deserve more.”
Mattison said the 13-member task force created by the aldermen would bring together all the groups who have concerns about the shootings, to determine appropriate policy changes.
Mattison said he proposed the implementation of a crisis intervention team, a program created by the State Department of Mental Health. The program provides training for police officers in the appropriate response to individuals with mental health problems. Mattison described interactions between police and potentially violent mentally ill individuals as “dangerous situations in which police may overreact.”
“The general idea of the training is that police officers faced with somebody who is obviously psychotic should set up a perimeter to keep other people away and out of danger, and not try to get close to the person,” Mattison said.
Mental health professionals should be present at the scene to try to avoid the use of police force, he said.
Ward 14 Alderman Joseph Jolly said Tasers or other nonlethal weapons could be another solution to the problem of excessive force.
“The only thing [police] have to reach for is their gun,” he said. “We haven’t given them the training to deal with the situation, or other weapons like the Taser.”
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey said police and city officials discussed purchasing Tasers for the police prior to either of the fatal shootings.
“The police chief was concerned because of reports that had already been out there about the safety of these devices,” he said. “I think there were issues about the level of training that you need to do to bring new equipment into the system.”
New Haven Police Department spokesperson Bonnie Winchester said in an e-mail that the department is considering the purchase of less-lethal technologies.
In the meantime, Ernest Malone, a resident of Lucky’s building, said the shooting has seriously affected the relationship between residents and police.
“They were very upset, and there were a lot of people [who were] frightened,” he said.
After the shooting, Malone said there has not been a security guard in the building to replace Rosa. But he said the residents did not want the Officer in Residence program reinstated without changes.
“They need to come in, whoever’s going to come in, and let them meet all the tenants,” Malone said. “Twice a month, once a month, then you’ll know the outsiders from the insiders.”
Malone said if Rosa had met all the residents of his building, the incident with Lucky could have been avoided.
“[Lucky] was well-known in the building,” he said. “He was a very friendly guy.”
Mattison said the Officer in Residence program has been temporarily suspended in response to the shooting.
“I think there is a general belief that when an officer moves into a building, there should be more notification of tenants,” he said.
Winchester said the program is still active, but is being reviewed. Police department staff met with participants in the Officer in Residence program to “renew the police department’s commitment to them,” she said.