Should Police Use of Tasers Be Regulated?

The NAACP calls it a civil rights issue. An activist for the disabled fears for the safety of people with cognitive and psychiatric problems. A scientist is convinced of the risk of death. And the ACLU has a list of possible Connecticut victims.

What they were talking about at a legislative hearing this week was the police use — or misuse — of Tasers or ECDs (electronic control devices), and whether lawmakers need to set statewide standards for training and reporting on their use.

These shock weapons are now being triggered by virtually every law enforcement agency in Connecticut, and worries that these 50,000-volt stun guns can kill are growing.

The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association has repeatedly fought against legislative action to curb or restrict the use of stun guns by cops. They argue Tasers are a critical alternative tool for police faced with gaining control of a suspect. Shocking a person into submission is a lot safer for that person and the cops than wrestling or clubbing or shooting, according to police.

One thing has changed in the chiefs' opposition to Taser controls. Last autumn, the state's Police Officer Standards and Training Council put together a working group to study recommendations for statewide guidelines for law enforcement training and use of stun guns, says Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore.

He told lawmakers at Monday's hearing that the training council is "in a better position" to judge what guidelines are needed than are legislators.

South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed argues the training council was created to handle exactly this sort of situation. "We're not opposed to regulation," Reed says, adding that "legislating police policy" on issues like this can make it tough to make revisions and reforms in the future.

Salvatore also insists electronic weapons in the hands of cops have been a positive force. "Having ECDs as tools for law enforcement has possibly saved lives and prevented injuries of the individuals involved as well as of our officers," according to Salvatore.

The idea that the police should decide how to regulate police use of Tasers hasn't convinced everyone.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has put together a list of at least 11 people in Connecticut who died in the last eight years after being Tasered by the cops.

In none of those cases were the deaths directly attributed to police use of stun guns, but the list includes some scary examples of potential abuse. Several lawsuits against police over the use of stun guns are now pending in federal courts.

One Middletown case involved the cops being called by a distraught man's family because he was having a severe anxiety attack. They brought a police dog, the guy freaked out, and police eventually stunned Efrain Carrion 34 times and he died.

A Waterbury dude named Marcus G. Brown was taken in for causing a disturbance at a hospital. Handcuffed, he tried to kick out the seats and windows of a police car, got hit with a Taser and soon died.

In his testimony this week, Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari, president of the Greater Hartford NAACP, said cops are using stun guns far too often in situations where they shouldn't be used. "And we see them used disproportionately on minorities," said Ansari.

"We can't say exactly how disproportionately because we don't require police to tell us who they shoot with Tasers," Ansari explained. "We only know for sure about the 11 people who have died in Connecticut since 2005 after being Tasered by police, and we know that eight of those people were African-American or Latino."

James D. McGaughey, executive director of the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, also weighed in on the side of legislative action on Taser regulation.

He pointed out that several of those Connecticut Taser-related deaths happened to people "who were either known to have psychiatric diagnoses or were exhibiting signs of psychiatric distress."

"Our office is also aware of recent instances where Tasers were used by officers responding to distress calls in group homes and other programs for people with intellectual or behavioral health disabilities," said McGaughey.

ACLU staff attorney David McGuire urged lawmakers to disregard the claims by Taser International Inc. (manufacturer of the vast majority of stun guns used by police) that these are "nonlethal weapons that safely and instantaneously incapacitate subjects with little or no risk of injury."

A medical expert and professor from the Indiana University School of Medicine named Douglas P. Zipes submitted testimony about his research that shows Tasers can be lethal in some circumstances.

"It is my opinion," Zipes told legislators, "to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that ECDs can cause cardiac arrest."

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