In the final hours of the 2014 state legislative session, lawmakers overwhelmingly supported a proposal that mandates all Connecticut police agencies adopt a policy on the use of Tasers. These handheld devices resemble firearms, and shoot barbed darts that contact combative suspects allowing police officers to subdue them using jolts of electricity instead of other, more potentially dangerous means.
The devices can also be used as a “stun gun” delivering a painful sting to suspects who may not be adhering to verbal commands from responding officers.
Police Chief Michael Kehoe said that Newtown was among the first communities in the region to acquire Taser technology, and as a result, also became one of the first towns in Connecticut to not only develop a Taser policy, but a substantial training regiment and a series of post-incident reporting and analysis.
“Using any kind of force is always a high liability area, and since we consider deploying the Taser as a use of force, we put a lot of effort into training to be sure when it is used, it is used appropriately,” Chief Kehoe told The Bee.
While Tasers are employed regularly across the state and nation, they have also been blamed for, or are factors in, a number of suspect deaths. The state office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that the new state legislation, HB 5389, was proposed after the death of José Maldonado in police custody.
Maldonado, 22, a resident of Manchester, died after an officer Tasered him at police headquarters in East Hartford. He was the 14th state resident to die after being Tasered by police.
Ten of those 14 people who died, or 71 percent, were African American or Latino, according to Scot X. Esdaile, president of the NAACP of Connecticut.
“This is a drastic disparity that we must address before more people die,” Mr Esdaile said. “Police have represented Tasers as nonlethal but we’ve learned otherwise.”
In another case, a highly agitated Middletown man having an anxiety attack struggled with police and died after being shocked 34 times by police in 2010, The CT Mirror reports. And in 2011, a 26-year-old man succumbed after being stunned while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser parked in front of a Waterbury hospital.
Under the new law, which will take effect January 1, 2015, police departments must adopt a policy on Taser use at least as stringent as a model policy developed by the Police Officer Standards and Training Council.
They must also report the details of each Taser deployment to the state Office of Policy and Management. This enhancement makes Connecticut the first state in the nation to require mandatory reporting of Taser use to a non-police agency.
“With that information and with policies that specifically address electronic weapons, we will move us toward safe and appropriate use of this important but potentially lethal law-enforcement tool,” said David McGuire, staff attorney for the state ACLU.
In 2011 and again in 2013, the ACLU of Connecticut and NAACP of Connecticut supported Taser reform legislation. Three people died after being Tasered in Connecticut since the reform bill failed last year.
Hartford-based WNPR reports that the NAACP and the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican caucus strongly supported the measure.
Newtown Taser Cases
A search of The Newtown Bee archives reveals only two situations where Newtown officers have employed department Tasers. In August 2008, local police employed a Taser to help subdue a 27-year-old man who was reportedly brandishing a foot-long dagger during a family altercation.
In a June 2011 case, officers utilized a Taser in the course of apprehending another alleged domestic offender after he was transported from the scene of the incident. Reports indicate that during his transport, the suspect broke or kicked out the rear windshield of the police cruiser.
Once he was brought into headquarters, reports indicate a Taser was used to help subdue the suspect.
Lt Christopher Vanghele, who oversees the training, reporting, and analysis of “use of force” incidents, said between 2004 and 2013, local officers have required full Taser deployment (barbs shot out) six times, utilized the device’s stun gun capabilities nine times, and have warned but not used the devices in 15 incidents. During that ten-year period, there were two years where no use or threats were logged, and in five of the ten years, department Tasers were used only once per year.
Chief Kehoe said this tracking of Taser use is important because it contributes to the department’s accreditation criteria.
“We not only evaluate the use of the Taser immediately following situations where it is used or implied that it will be used, but we also reexamine the incident at some point soon after, and as part of our annual review of use of force incidents,” Chief Kehoe said.
He said the Newtown Taser policy, which was initiated in April 2003, goes even further than the state’s new mandate because it not only requires the department to report and track the use of the electronic devices, but situations where officers suggest the possible use of electrical shock against unruly suspects.
“Our officers have many tools at their disposal to handle various situations, and there are very specific and appropriate times to deploy a Taser,” he said. Chief Kehoe added that when he learns of incidents in other jurisdictions where a Taser may have been used improperly, inappropriately, or too frequently when other alternatives were available, he attributes it to “a training issue.”
Newtown’s four-page policy requires each officer armed with a Taser to inspect the device before it is strapped on before each shift. Only certified officers may carry the device, and each is required to be re-certified annually.
Similarly, each department Taser must be inspected by a certified instructor to ensure it is being maintained properly. The policy also suggests, when possible, to request a department supervisor respond to any scene where Taser use is being considered.
Taser Use Criteria
Tasers are not to be used against a passive subject, and the inappropriate use of the device could justify an officer losing the option to carry a Taser along with their certification. Officers also must assess the age and physical condition of a possible suspect to determine if use of the device is appropriate, or if the suspect is in a position where the person may fall or be injured as a result of the Taser’s effects.
Local officers are trained to aim or employ a Taser on the large muscle mass areas and to avoid areas around the heart and head. Any officer employing a Taser must ensure any subject receives immediate medical evaluation, providing it is safe to do so, and any suspect that has been shocked must be monitored while in custody for any aftereffects.
Finally, when a Taser is used, most of its components, including computerized recorded deployment information, is impounded for possible use as evidence if required, and to gather information for post-incident reporting and tracking.
While Taser technology has not changed much since the evolution of the device, Newtown has continuously sought to improve and revise its policy, along with its training. Newtown’s policy has been revised five times since it was adopted, the latest in December 2013.
Chief Kehoe said that among the improvements made to Tasers are the downsizing of the instruments, and the available addition of video and audio capture that records everything from the moment the Taser comes out of its holster.
“You actually can watch and hear the situations from the officer’s point of view through the sights [of the device],” he said.
When asked about the latest development at the state level regarding mandated tracking and reporting, he replied that if all Connecticut law enforcement agencies were doing their jobs correctly, and reviewing their practices critically and with an eye on improving their performance and outcomes, “we wouldn’t be needing this level of state oversight.”
At the same time, he suggested that a uniform requirement for departments like Newtown to develop a policy along with loyal reporting of Taser use will give law enforcement agencies more reasons to “drill down to look at each incident of deployment as well as exploring and analyzing the reason why.”