Stun gun bill gaining ground
Police shootings focus of attention
Family members continued to mourn yesterday for Luis Gonzalez, shot and killed by police in the South End on Friday night, while some state legislators said high-voltage stun guns might have prevented his death and that of another man early last week.
Final passage of a bill allowing law enforcement officers in Massachusetts to use the electronic weapons is expected as soon as tomorrow. The bill, put forward by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, was passed by the House a couple of weeks ago and the Senate on Thursday. The legislation has to pass in the House once more because of Senate amendments before going to Governor Mitt Romney's desk for his signature.
''I think if the police officers had a tool like this, those deaths could have been prevented," said Representative Timothy J. Toomey Jr., a Democrat who is the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety. ''The persons hopefully would have been kept alive, rather than using deadly force. Clearly, I think it's a mechanism to save some lives."
A spokesman for Menino would not comment on last week's shootings, but said Massachusetts is the only state that does not allow the stun guns, often called Tasers after the foremost manufacturer, TASER International. ''These Tasers provide an important nonlethal option for Boston police," Seth Gitell said. The Taser guns look like pistols and can shoot 50,000 volts of electricity up to 21 feet into a targeted suspect, causing immobilization for about five seconds and giving law enforcement officers critical time to apply handcuffs.
In the South End on Friday night, patrolmen William Slyne and Thomas M. Antonino fired their guns at Gonzalez after the 58-year-old man threatened them with a knife in his Tremont Street apartment, according to a police official who has been briefed on the investigation and requested anonymity.
Another officer, Sergeant Daniel M. Keeler, was present but did not fire his gun, said David Procopio, spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office.
The officers, called to the apartment at 626 Tremont St. at about 10:25 p.m. in response to reports Gonzalez was threatening to harm himself, had tried unsuccessfully to use pepper spray to subdue the man, who was lunging at them with a knife, according to details provided Saturday by another police official who has talked with investigators.
Gonzalez was identified by family members as an alcoholic with a history of mental illness, but they said his shooting was unjustified.
''They didn't have to do it," his daughter, Migdalia Gonzalez, said yesterday. ''They didn't kill a dog. They killed a human being."
She said that she hadn't heard from police since the shooting and was frustrated by the lack of communication. ''I want for them to explain to me why they did it," she said. ''What was the reason?"
Her father's death was the second at the hands of Boston police in a week. Bert W. Bowen, a 40-year-old Roxbury man, was shot and killed on Brookford Street on June 27 after police said he pointed a gun at an officer who was pursuing him.
Until Bowen's death, the last time Boston police used deadly force was in September 2002, when a Dorchester woman, Eveline Barros-Cepeda, was shot while riding in a car that had struck a police officer.
Boston police confirmed Gonzalez's identity yesterday, but gave no further details on the shootings or the investigations. Police also declined to comment on the pending stun gun legislation.
State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, Democrat of Cambridge, said he wasn't sure whether a high-voltage stun gun would have given officers in the Roxbury shooting a viable alternative to using firearms. But he said a Taser might have saved Gonzalez's life because the confrontation with police was within the weapon's range.
In ''situations where police are apprehending a violent criminal like Friday night in the South End, this is a no-brainer for why Tasers will save the lives of suspects and keep our police officers safe," said Barrios, Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety.
In cities across the country that have the stun guns, the use of Tasers has dramatically cut the number of injuries and deaths to suspects and police officers, according to TASER International.
In Denver, suspect injury rates fell by 89 percent in the 18 months after the police department began using Tasers in 2002, the manufacturer says. In Phoenix, injury rates fell 67 percent, while the number of deadly force incidents was cut in half. In Orange County, Fla., the number of suspect deaths fell from 14 in 2000 to zero in 2002, when officers were using the Taser stun guns.
TASER stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, named by the inventor for a character in a book by Victor Appleton, ''Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle," in which the title character was able to shoot people without killing them, said Steve Tuttle, spokesman for TASER International.
Nationwide, at least 40 people have died after being zapped by a Taser, though Tuttle insists the deaths were unrelated to the Tasers and would have happened if the stun guns were not used.
''We're not a magic bullet," said Tuttle, who was in Boston two weeks ago lobbying lawmakers to pass the Massachusetts bill. ''We're not going to replace the firearm, but this technology will dramatically reduce injuries to both officers and suspects."
The stun gun legislation has an emergency clause that would make the law go into effect as soon as Romney signs it, which could happen in a matter of weeks, according to a legislative aide working on the bill. The bill was part of a legislative package forwarded by Menino this spring, and the emergency clause fueled speculation in the Legislature that the mayor wanted Boston police officers to be able to use the stun guns to help control protesters during the Democratic National Convention during the last week of July.
The mayor's spokesman said yesterday that the measure had nothing to do with the convention.
''We've included it in our legislative package several times previously, but it didn't pass," Gitell said. ''Mayor Menino is hopeful the Legislature will pass this measure soon and that Governor Romney, in turn, will sign it."
Donovan Slack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe correspondent Alonso Soto contributed to this report.
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