State to compile information on use of Tasers by police

A Taser fires two electrodes attached to wires that hook into a person's body. Once two probes are in and the circuit is complete, the officer pulls the trigger to deliver a shock that contracts the person's muscles.
A Taser fires two electrodes attached to wires that hook into a person's body. Once two probes are in and the circuit is complete, the officer pulls the trigger to deliver a shock that contracts the person's muscles. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Through a law hailed as a breakthrough by both the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, the state will now mandate that all police departments compile information detailing how electronic defense weapons, commonly known as stun guns or Tasers, are used and whom they are being used on.

The law requires law enforcement to report specific data on the use of Tasers, including the race and gender of the person the weapon was used on, the number of times it was activated and any injuries suffered.

Many local departments have been using the Taser for a decade or more but following their own policies on how reports are compiled.

The new data is to be collected on standardized forms to be developed by the Police Officer Standards and Training Council by Jan. 1, 2015, according to the recently enacted law. Every department in the state, by 2016, will be required to submit information that will be analyzed and posted annually on a website maintained by the state Office of Policy and Management.

The ACLU has been lobbying for such a law for years and urged the legislature again this year following the death of José Maldonado, a 22-year-old Manchester man who was stunned at police headquarters in East Hartford. The ACLU says he was the 14th person to die by Taser by police in Connecticut and one of 10 who were either African American or Latino.

Tamara Lanier, criminal justice chairwoman for the state NAACP, said the new law is one of three recent legislative acts that "have really catapulted Connecticut to the forefront in its response to complaints of alleged civil rights violations."

The state has also passed laws concerning documentation at traffic stops and complaints that allege misconduct by law enforcement personnel. Lanier said the collection and posting of the data will lead to better transparency.

"The many residents, particularly those of southeastern Connecticut who participated in town hall meetings, rallies and other public events, should feel that they had some part in this change," she said.

Norwich police Lt. Christopher Ferace said he didn't think the new requirements would be too much of a burden considering the relatively few instances of Taser use each year by his officers. Four people were stunned in 2013 and three people so far in 2014, he said.

"Surprisingly, we rarely use them," Ferace said. "Our guys use great restraint. We use them sparingly. It's a nice option to have."

Norwich officers were introduced to the Taser in 2004, when it was hailed as an additional, less lethal option alongside such things as a baton or pepper spray. Ferace is certified by both Taser International, which developed its own policy, and the Police Officer Standards and Training Council, which has even stricter guidelines.

About 49 officers are trained in the use of Tasers, with more than a dozen weapons on patrol during any given shift.

The Tasers themselves, he said, store information about the time, date and duration of deployment. That data, he said, is kept by the department in the event there is an allegation of impropriety. Other documentation is compiled in a use-of-force report.

In New London, where police have recently upgraded Tasers and expanded use, Deputy Chief Peter Reichard said newer models record audio and video during use.

A typical Taser fires two electrodes attached to wires that hook into a person's body. Once two probes are in and the circuit is complete, the officer pulls the trigger to deliver a shock that essentially contracts the person's muscles. Each trigger pull delivers a five-second cycle, which can be repeated at the officer's discretion, Ferace said. Taser International, which offers its own guidelines and training, does not recommend more than three cycles unless there are extenuating circumstances or deadly force is justified. The weapons can also deliver a shock directly when pressed against the body.

Ferace said the Norwich department and The William W. Backus Hospital developed medical guidelines for treatment of a person who has been shocked. In Norwich there is an automatic call for advanced life support, and medical personnel from American Ambulance will use an EKG to monitor cardiac activity.

Some deaths related to use of Tasers have been blamed on heart attacks associated with the jolt delivered by the weapon.

Ferace said the weapons are not used in lieu of deadly force, but rather as "an option to avoid it."

"If someone pulls a gun on a police officer, they're not expected to meet force with lesser force," he said. "If someone pulls a gun we don't typically pull a Taser."

They also act as a deterrent, according to Waterford Lt. Brett Mahoney, whose department has used the weapons since 2000. Every officer on the road carries one.

Mahoney said the department logged 39 uses in 2013 and 24 so far in 2014, a number that includes both people who were shocked and the number of times an officer threatened a Taser's use. He said numbers of actual firing were not immediately available.

"We feel we have cut down on injuries for both the people we arrest and the officers," he said.

Reichard, the New London deputy chief, agreed and said instead of fighting someone who needs to be detained, officers can avoid the potential for injuries on both sides and end the incident quickly.

New London officers were credited with de-escalating a potentially deadly situation involving a suicidal and distraught woman. She was holding what turned out to be a fake handgun, but at the time officers had trained their rifles on her in the event she turned on officers. While reasoning with the mentally impaired woman, police used the Taser and ended the standoff.

Reichard said there was the potential that if she turned the gun toward officers, they might have fired.

While most Groton City officers carry Tasers, they did not use them on anyone in all of 2013, according to Chief Thomas Davoren.

"It's a great tool and we would hate to lose it because of indiscriminate use. I look at it as an alternative to deadly force. We don't shoot people every day so we shouldn't be Tasing people every day," Davoren said.

g.smith@theday.com

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