A year and a half after several shootings involving the New Haven Police Department left three residents dead, the Deadly Force Task Force is preparing to offer its recommendations to the city, which may include the creation of a controversial Taser stun gun pilot program.
At what was scheduled to be its second-to-last meeting Monday, members of the task force debated whether to include the Taser program among its suggestions. The thirteen-member group, which includes aldermen, city officials and members of the community, was created after the shootings to suggest ways for police officers to reduce the use of deadly force.
Though the proposed Taser pilot generally has the support of police and city officials, task force members had a variety of opinions about the program. Tasers are considered safer alternatives to firearms because they shoot darts carrying an electric shock.
Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison, who is a member of the task force, said the idea of recommending stun guns was introduced during the group’s first meetings last October. Mattison and other members feel ambivalent about the idea, he said, because while stun guns can prevent shootings in some cases, they can also enable abuse by officers who overuse them. He cited Danbury, Conn., as an example of a city where Tasers have been used inappropriately.
“I don’t like that the choice is either killing them or doing nothing,” he said. “[But] I am nervous, because in Danbury for three years they have used [Tasers] a couple hundred times, mostly on the mentally ill. If it came to that here, then I would not be happy.”
One of the task force’s other recommendations, released in a statement by the Board of Aldermen earlier this week, advises the NHPD to make a clearer procedure for involving the Crisis Intervention Training Team, which is specially trained for potentially violent situations involving the mentally ill.
Mattison, who works with the mentally ill as director of the South Central Behavioral Health Network, said he knew one of the men who was shot and killed in spring 2005 after the man charged the several NHPD officers. Mattison said the availability of Taser guns could have prevented the man’s death and other fatalities involving police shootings.
“I talked to a lot of people involved in the shooting,” Mattison said. “I think if we had had Tasers it wouldn’t have happened.”
NHPD Spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester declined to comment on the pilot program.
Mattison said he is concerned that even well-trained officers may abuse Tasers, using them inappropriately when facing the mentally ill. But he also said New Haven has more mental health services than Danbury that the NHPD can call on for help in difficult situations.
But other task force members, including Roger Vann, the executive director of the Connecticut branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said they remain completely opposed to including the pilot program in their recommendations to the Board of Alderman.
Vann said the proposed program would involve purchasing 50 Taser guns for $800 each and training 100 officers in their usage, beginning with those who are already trained to handle dangerous victims of mental illness. The program, he said, sounds more like “phase one” than a pilot.
“[The police] say if it fails, they’ll pull it back,” Vann said. “I don’t think they’ll pull it back … Failing would mean someone dying, and I don’t think that’s appropriate for our committee to suggest.”
Currently, about 100 municipalities in Connecticut use Taser guns. Vann said fatalities are rare, but he cited several recent deaths this past year in Connecticut that occurred after stun guns were used. Last week, a man died in Milford after being shot twice with a Taser.
Though the Taser has not been directly linked to the death, both Vann and Mattison said it could not be eliminated as a cause.
“There are already questions about the hazard involved when an individual has certain drugs in [his or her] system and has certain heart conditions,” Vann said. “Studies have shown that police use stun guns in situations they would never use a gun, and the more you use them, the more likely something will go wrong.”
Instead of pursuing a Taser program, Vann said, he would prefer that the Board of Alderman institute other recommendations that focus on developing more police accountability. He also supports recommendations to improve relationships between community members and police officers, which will help defuse tense situations before force is used, he said.
In its draft recommendations, the task force calls on police officials to “gauge [the] pulse of the community” through annual forums in which the topics of deadly force and policy brutality are discussed with the public.
The task force is scheduled to hold its last meeting Nov. 13 at 6:00 in City Hall to finalize their recommendations, which may or may not include the Taser program, for the Board of Aldermen.