The Deadly Force Task Force voted Monday to recommend that the Board of Aldermen implement a Taser stun gun pilot program for the New Haven Police Department.
After over a year of meetings and investigation, members of the task force — which was created in response to several fatal police shootings in 2005 — voted to include the Taser pilot program in their list of recommendations, which also includes plans to train police officers to intervene in crisis situations without the use of violence. Members said the Taser issue was the most controversial of the proposals, as two of the 13 members of the task force remained opposed to it after months of debate. Supporters said the program may help save lives, but opponents said they were worried about the potential for an increase in abuse by officers.
The proposed pilot program would involve purchasing 50 stun guns for more than $800 each and specially training 100 officers in their use, said task force member Karyl Lee Hall of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc. If passed by the Board of Aldermen, the program would run for one year, at which point it would be reviewed.
Yusuf Shah, task force chair and Ward 23 Alderman, said he supports the program because it may reduce the use of deadly force in tense confrontations with suspects. He said both the NHPD and members of the community see Tasers as a less dangerous alternative to other weapons used by officers.
Shah also lauded the oversight capabilities of the stun gun program. Unlike a night stick, firearm or other weapon, he said, a Taser records the number of times it is removed from its holster and the number of times its trigger is pulled.
“In my perspective, the Taser is much more accountable. When you pull out a Taser, it’s all documented.”
If the program budget allows, Tasers with cameras that record their use would be purchased, though Shah said they could be bought without cameras and later upgraded.
Hall, who opposed the proposal, said there are too many risks involved with the pilot program. Because Tasers are often seen as a safe alternative to other weapons, she said, the program may increase the risk of abuse by officers in situations where they would normally not use a weapon.
“No weapon is safe, and I think they are being shown as an alternative,” she said. “I don’t think we know enough. There have been instances that have resulted in death and injury.”
Roger Vann, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, also opposed the Taser program recommendation.
Currently, approximately 100 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities use Tasers, and there have been several deaths following the use of Tasers in the state during the past year. A man died in nearby Milford, Conn. last month after being shot twice by a Taser, though the shocks have not been established as the main cause of death.
In addition, Hall said she is worried that there are not clear guidelines about delineating the circumstances in which Tasers should be used. While she said NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz told her that the stun guns would not be used in bars or for crowd control, she remains concerned that they will be used as weapons of intimidation.
“I suspect Tasers are used when people are being rowdy, and people know they hurt,” she said. “Intimidation as a tool is very questionable to me.”
Ortiz also told Hall that Tasers would not necessarily replace guns when an officer faces a suspect carrying a knife or weapon, Hall said.
NHPD spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester declined to comment on the proposal.
While she has strong doubts about Tasers, Hall said she hopes that wise policy and good training will convince her of the program’s value.
Last month, task force member and Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison LAW ’68 told the News that he was concerned that without proper training, Tasers may be overused against the mentally ill. But Mattison also said Tasers could successfully prevent the use of deadly force.
Likewise, Shah said the possible benefits of Tasers outweigh the risks.
“The benefits of the new technology outweigh my concerns about abuse because if we catch an officer abusing, we already have a procedure in place to take care of that,” he said. “We can assess that when we see it and the Chief is very aware of what goes on.”
The task force’s other recommendations included an expansion of Crisis Intervention Training, which trains officers on how to defuse tense situations without violence, and the creation of a more specific policy regarding the situations in which crisis-trained officers should be requested. Other proposals focused on increasing communication between police and community, and on having the Civilian Review Board review all cases of deadly force.
Hall said the other recommendation that was not passed unanimously calls on the Board of Aldermen to codify the Civilian Review Board, which currently exists only as an executive order.
Shah said the Board of Aldermen might vote on the proposals as soon as December.