Since 2005, 11 people have died after being shocked by Tasers in Connecticut. Most have been black or Hispanic.
In one case, a highly agitated Middletown man having an anxiety attack struggled with police and died after being shocked 34 times by police in 2010.
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.
Worried about the safety and proper use of Tasers, state lawmakers have proposed two bills that would require police to get training in using Tasers and to file reports for each time a Taser is used. They would also require police to make sure subjects of stun-gun use get seen by a medical professional.
State Rep. Larry B. Butler, D-Waterbury, proposed one of the bills after the incident at the hospital in his district. He noted that the man who was stunned in the back of the police cruiser initially seemed fine, but died shortly thereafter in front of the hospital.
“It’s just a common sense thing to have somebody who was Tasered be examined by medical people,” he said.
The bills are strongly supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which proposed a similar bill two years ago that died in committee.
“We just feel that from news accounts and the alarming number of deaths related to Tasings, that now is the time to institute uniform training and reporting around Taser use,” said David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut. The organization and others are also concerned about the apparent racial disparity in Taser-related deaths.
In the Middletown case, Efrain Carrion, 35, had been hiding under a bed when police arrived. He shoved the mattress up at an officer when family members tried to coax him out, according to a Hartford Courant report .
Police got Carrion to sit on a chair and handcuffed him, but a violent struggle ensued after he slipped off the chair and tried to put his handcuffed hands in front of him, the report said.
Police shocked him with a Taser to bring him under control, but he continued to struggle and fling police around the room, according to the news report. He ended up falling down the stairs and crawling out to the bushes behind his apartment where his heart stopped beating, the report said.
He had been shocked 34 times within the span of eight to 10 minutes.
Investigations cleared Middletown and Waterbury police of any wrongdoing in both cases.
Lives saved, too
Tasers, generically known as electronic control devices, have been considered a non-lethal weapon in a police officer’s arsenal in Connecticut since they began to be widely used around 2005.
Taser International Inc. reports that more than 600,000 of their devices are in use throughout the world, and are used an estimated 900 times a day. The company says the devices have saved 1.8 million lives since their introduction.
Until recently, they have not been tied directly to heart-attack deaths. In May 2011, The National Institute of Justice published a report saying, in part, “current research does not support a substantially increased risk of cardiac arrhythmia in field situations, even if the CED darts strike the front of the chest.”
On death certificates for the Connecticut Taser-related cases, some causes of death were listed as cardiac arrest or “undetermined,” but most were listed as “excitable delirium,” including Carrion’s case, McGuire said.
Last year, however, the American Heart Association journal, “Circulation,” drew more of a direct connection. The journal ran an article reviewing eight Taser-related deaths and found that Taser shocks, particularly those given to the chest, can cause fatal ventricular fibrillation.
Including the Connecticut cases, Amnesty International estimates there have been 500 Taser-related deaths in the United States between 2001 and 2012, McGuire said.
The bills now before the legislature would require police to make sure anyone who has been shocked by a Taser gets seen by a medical professional.
“That’s because many of the people who have passed away around the country were Tased and were seemingly fine, but then 5 or 10 minutes later they slipped into cardiac arrest,” McGuire said.
“Tasing can essentially alter your heart’s rhythm and that can cause catastrophic results. If someone has an underlying heart issue that the person might not be aware of and police certainly are not aware of, Tasers can be deadly,” he said.
The bills would also require police to report who fired the stun gun, how many times it was fired and other details, such as the sex and race of the person fired upon.
Proponents of the legislation argue that reporting is important to give law enforcement and the public data to determine how big a problem injury or death from the use of Tasers really is and whether certain officers are misusing Tasers. Such a report could also be used to defend police officers against unjust claims, McGuire said.
The ACLU has found a large racial disparity in Taser-related deaths. Of the 11 people who died in Connecticut, eight were black or Hispanic.
For this reason, the NAACP in Connecticut has made the Taser bills a priority in this legislative session.
“The deaths are appalling,” said Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP. “Individuals are dying from these tools of torture and something has to be done immediately.”
“Originally when these instruments were sold to the community they were supposed to be an alternative to using lethal force. And now we see officers in situations where it’s not a life or death situation — where they are using them to terrorize people,” Esdaile said.
Oftentimes Taser-use cases involve highly agitated people with some kind of mental illness or who are under the influence of drugs, who, as a result, often don’t react the same way as most people to a Taser shock. Of the 11 fatal cases in Connecticut, five were known to have been under the influence of drugs and six were showing signs of mental illness or emotional disturbance, McGuire said. One of the 11 was armed.
“Generally these are unarmed individuals who in the past would likely have been talked down or dealt with in a less extreme intervention,” McGuire said.
Police, however, question the need for legislation. The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association testified against Butler’s bill, saying any additional training, if necessary, should be handled by the Police Officer Standards and Training Council. They said such training could be incorporated into the mandatory 60-hour triennial recertification process already in place.
“The reason we like that a lot better is that if something needs to be changed, it’s a lot easer for POST to make the changes and submit them to the departments than it is to change legislation,” said Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.
In fact, POST had already formed a group to explore Tasers even before the legislative session began, Salvatore said.
“What it came down to was realizing that we needed to look at it on a statewide basis and come out with a set of minimum standards,” Salvatore said. “It would be unadvisable to us to use those devices without training.”
Some police departments have already set guidelines. New Haven, for example, requires officers to file a detailed report every time a Taser is used. Bridgeport requires officers to undergo eight hours of comprehensive training for Tasers, including getting shot with a Taser for five seconds to be more conscious of the impact of the electronic burst.
Several states have recently established their own rules and regulations. New Jersey has strict, comprehensive guidelines set by the attorney general that cover everything from deployment techniques to the handling of injured suspects.
Massachusetts passed a law requiring training and tracking of Taser use, and Hawaii requires police departments to keep a record of every time a Taser is deployed.