By Gregory B. Hladky
3:10 PM EDT, May 14, 2013
At least 29 people in Connecticut have died in the past seven years after deadly encounters with cops: 18 shot to death; probably 11 more after being hit by police Tasers.
Almost 59 percent of those fatal incidents involved blacks or Latinos, according to the Advocate's review of both official and unofficial reports, and at least 41 percent of those who died were suffering from mental illness.
Three of those police shooting deaths happened in Bridgeport — the highest number for any law enforcement unit in Connecticut in that period. Lyle Hassan Jones, a Bridgeport activist with the nonprofit group Save Our Babies, says he's "not at all" surprised.
He insists the criminal justice system's failure to convict police who misuse lethal force is the reason African-American and Hispanic men in Bridgeport and across the state keep getting into so many fatal confrontations with police.
In at least three instances in recent years, police in Connecticut who shot and killed unarmed people have been exonerated by official state investigations.
"If they would get serious about these police officers, about the ones who are overly aggressive and trigger-happy," Hassan Jones says, "then other cops could be more reluctant to pull the trigger." A Bridgeport police spokesman says each of those cases of fatal cop shootings has been thoroughly investigated and in every case "the officers were found to have acted appropriately."
Criminal justice experts insist the circumstances surrounding fatal police shootings aren't as simple or clear-cut as some might believe. These experts say the disturbing statistics for such shooting deaths and Taser incidents in this state are part of broader patterns of racial inequities within our inner cities and our prisons, and also involve still unresolved issues of how to deal with the mentally ill on our streets.
"Obviously, one of the biggest problems in our [criminal justice] system is the racial disparity that exists," says Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser. A significant part of that situation is that far too many young African Americans and Hispanics are involved in inner-city violence against each other, he says.
"Your chances of being shot to death in Connecticut [by someone other than a cop] are much higher if you're a young black man," Lawlor says. He adds that the level of violence in urban minority areas most likely does have an impact on police and how ready they are to use deadly force in tense situations.
Former Branford Police Chief John DeCarlo, now an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, agrees with Lawlor. DeCarlo says the higher percentage of minorities involved in fatal police shootings is "consistent with the overall trend in homicides... People of color are shooting people of color."
DeCarlo, who is cochairman of a state task force on racial profiling, says approximately 400 people a year die after being shot by police in the U.S.
"Are police more likely to shoot if [suspects or individuals confronting police] are black? It's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer to that," Lawlor says.
Lawlor adds that new efforts in Connecticut to reduce the racial disparities in state prisons are working. He says that, in the past five years, programs to provide alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders have cut the prison population by about 3,500 people — virtually all of them blacks or Hispanics.
All fatal police encounters are automatically reviewed by the local state's attorney's office, and a file is opened by the U.S. Justice Department, Lawlor noted. "Sometimes police do get prosecuted," he points out.
But not often. None of the 29 fatal incidents involving Connecticut police reviewed by the Advocate resulted in a state finding of misuse of deadly force by the officer involved.
Not even in the 2008 shooting death of an unarmed Gonzalo Guizan in Easton by a police SWAT team, a case that resulted in a civil trial and a $3.5 million settlement paid to Guizan's family. In that case, a state investigation found a police officer mistakenly thought he'd been shot (when he was actually hit by debris from a police "flash-bang" grenade), and opened fire.
"The use of force by police officers... was appropriate," was the conclusion.
Just last year, a jury in a civil trial cleared Bridgeport Police Lt. Brian Fitzgerald of wrongdoing in the 2008 case of Frederick McAllister, an unarmed man who was shot in the back.
Police were chasing McAllister because they mistook him for his cousin, who was wanted on outstanding South Carolina felony charges. Fitzgerald said he fired six shots at McAllister because he thought the fleeing man was reaching for a gun. In fact, McAllister had his BlackBerry in his hand when he was found.
"It's so hard to convict a cop for shooting an unarmed black man," Hassan Jones says, his voice bitter and angry. "There's no respect for the African-American man, he's a target... They don't value our lives the way they do their own."
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."
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