David McGuire, a lawyer with the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the proportion of people of color and people with mental illnesses dying from police use of lethal force is a major concern.
"Those numbers are far out of whack with the state's demographics," says McGuire.
People of color make up less than 25 percent of this state's population, and experts say just one quarter of people in the U.S. ever face significant mental illness issues.
The ACLU has also pointed out that more than half of the people who died after being hit by police stun guns since 2007 were suffering from mental illness. (Eight of the 11 who died were people of color.)
In none of the cases where people died immediately or soon after being hit by law enforcement Tasers were police officers found to have been at fault. In fact, all of the deaths were attributed to causes other than being hit — often repeatedly — with the 50,000-volt electronic weapons.
Several civil suits have been filed accusing police of misconduct in some of those deaths.
In one case, Efrain Carrion's wife called Middletown police for help because he was having an anxiety attack. Several cops showed up, including one with a police dog, and Carrion ended up trying to flee and being Tasered multiple times by police.
The ACLU and concerned lawmakers are pushing for legislation to require additional training and guidelines for police on when to use Tasers and when not to, and for mandatory reporting on who is being stunned in police confrontations and how often.
About 80 percent of all Connecticut law enforcement agencies have had some of their officers go through an intensive, weeklong training program on how to deal with mentally ill people, according to Louise Pyers. She is the founder and executive director of Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, which offers the crisis intervention training to police. She is also criminal justice project director of the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The issue of cops getting into violent confrontations with the mentally ill got worse in recent decades as big state mental institutions closed down. Pyers says lots of those people ended up on the streets because of a lack of funding for local community support services.
Inevitably, cops got handed the responsibility for handling these sad cases, Pyers says, but police "weren't given the tools for how to deal with people with mental health problems."
Pyers says this sort of training can't prevent all fatal police encounters with people suffering from mental health problems, particularly when an officer feels his life or that of someone else is at risk.
"But it does reduce the number of situations when an officer would have to use deadly force," Pyers says.
The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services spends about $883,000 a year on those training programs, says agency spokeswoman Mary Mason.
Lawlor says state and local law enforcement officials are far better trained in dealing with mental illness today than they were even a few years ago, but admits "there's a lot of room for improvement."
The ACLU's McGuire calls it "absolutely essential" for police these days to have in-depth training on mental illness.
"Unfortunately," he adds, "we believe there are lot of Connecticut police officers who don't have that training."