By Gregory B. Hladky 4:21 PM EDT, October 28, 2011
Police used Tasers far too often on people who posed no real threat, on the elderly, children and the infirm. They stunned people already handcuffed and used Tasers without proper warning, often violating safety guidelines. And 58 percent of those Tased were people of color. Those are some of the results of a study of police use of Tasers across the border in New York state, but some officials and activists here are convinced the same sort of widespread abuse is going on in Connecticut. They insist state legislation is needed to solve the problem. “I think if we’d done a similar investigation in Connecticut we’d find similar outcomes,” says David McGuire, a staff attorney with the Connecticut branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s chief adviser on criminal justice matters, says he wasn’t at all surprised by the findings of the study by the New York Civil Liberties Union of 851 incidence reports of police Taser use in that state. “What people predicted several years ago is coming true,” Lawlor says of the increasingly widespread use of stun guns by cops. “Tasers are going to be used in cases that are clearly not appropriate.” State Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, is a 22-year veteran of the Canton Police Department, and he couldn’t disagree more. “Shame on them,” he said of Connecticut officials who believe the results of the New York study of Taser abuse could be applied to cops in this state. Witkos says he opposes new state regulation of police use of Tasers because he fears it would inhibit officers from “making split-second decisions” about how much force should be used in a potentially violent situation. “I don’t want them to second-guess themselves,” he says. Allegations of misuse of Tasers in Connecticut include the police using a stun gun on a Middletown High School student after he’d allegedly taken an extra meat patty from the lunch counter, and multiple deaths of individuals after repeatedly being Tasered by cops. (Authorities in this state have never listed a police Tasering as the immediate cause of death, finding that other problems, like drug use, were responsible.) Several lawsuits have already been filed in federal court, claiming abuse of Tasers by Connecticut police. A federal grand jury probe of police brutality in Meriden reportedly involves a review of cop use of Tasers. Legislation to provide statewide standards for police training in the use of electronic stun guns and clear restrictions on how and when they should be used by cops was proposed in the Connecticut legislature last year. The bill ended up being watered down to a study by a police training council, and was then allowed to die on the state House calendar without a vote. The issue of tougher controls over police use of Tasers is certain to be revived again in the 2012 General Assembly, activists say. “We remain committed to this issue, and we’re going to see this through,” McGuire says. “I think training and education [for police in the proper use of Tasers] would certainly be helpful,” says state Rep. Gerald Fox III, a Stamford Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “Each year we read of more incidents where tragedy occurred because of the use of a Taser,” Fox adds. Police officials and the manufacturer of law enforcement Tasers insist there’s no need for additional training, regulation or restrictions. They argue Connecticut cops already have proper training procedures in place. They say using non-lethal stun guns is almost always safer for cops and the people they are arresting than employing batons or fists or firearms. The Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association opposed the Taser regulation bill at a public hearing back in March. West Hartford Chief James Strillacci warned in testimony that the proposed guidelines would “hinder police use of devices which have saved lives and prevented injuries since their introduction.” Strillacci and Chief Anthony Salvatore of Cromwell also objected to the bill’s restrictions on who could or could not be Tasered by a cop. “A subject’s actions determine the need for force,” they told lawmakers, “not his status. An elderly man or a pregnant woman is still dangerous if holding a knife to a child’s throat.” Tasers, which produce 50,000-volt shocks, have become almost standard equipment for Connecticut cops, and it’s happened (in government bureaucratic terms) almost overnight. In 2006, a legislative researcher found 71 Connecticut departments had Tasers; by 2010 the maker of the popular stun gun reported more than 140 law enforcement agencies in this state were using Tasers. The report on police Taser use in New York included the following findings: - Nearly 60 percent of the Taser incidents studied failed to meet experts’ recommendations about limiting use to “active aggression” or “risk of physical injury” situations. - 40 percent of Taser cases involved “at-risk subjects” including the seriously intoxicated, the mentally ill, elderly, infirm and children. - Police used multiple or prolonged shocks more than 33 percent of the time despite warnings about possible cardiac arrest. - At least one-quarter of cases involved Taser shocks directly to the chest, which Taser manufacturer recommends against. - 15 percent of cases saw Tasers used on someone in handcuffs or already restrained - violating most accepted police guidelines. - More than a dozen people in New York died in recent years after being Tasered by police. - Report called for strong state and local guidelines and restrictions on the police use of Tasers, and detailed reporting about when and upon whom Tasers are used.