WORCESTER — The Massachusetts State Police department for the first time has begun widely arming troopers with Tasers, a typically nonlethal weapon that officials hope will give troopers a way to subdue criminal suspects without resorting to gunfire.
“None of us want to shoot anybody,” Colonel Richard McKeon, superintendent of the State Police, said Thursday in an interview with the Globe. “It provides for more safety, less injury, and it’s a less-than-lethal force tool. It can also be a deterrent.”
As part of a larger effort to equip troopers to ratchet down potentially violent confrontations, the department has purchased 895 Tasers for nearly $1 million and started training officers to use them in the last two months, McKeon said.
The devices send an electric current through the target, stunning and temporarily incapacitating them. The weapons have been used by police officers in Massachusetts since 2004.
Dana Pullman, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, said the troopers and sergeants represented by the union have been pushing for Tasers for years.
“It can deescalate a potentially lethal situation,” he said. “It’s a game changer for us.”
But some civil rights groups expressed concerns Thursday.
“Trading one weapon for another weapon does not ensure we are properly training officers locally or statewide,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in Boston. “It’s difficult for me to applaud one weapon over another. Any use of force that could be avoided should be avoided.”
Statewide, 236 police departments are approved to use the devices, which are also referred to as electronic control weapons, according to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Their use varies by department. For example, Tasers are used in the Boston Police Department only by members of tactical teams, a spokesman said.
At least 300 Tasers have been distributed throughout the State Police so far, McKeon said in the interview, which took place at the DCU Center in Worcester.
In addition to the 40 to 50 troopers who were initially trained to give instruction on the weapons, all 158 incoming troopers who are members of the 82nd Recruit Training Troop scheduled to graduate Friday at the DCU Center have been trained to use Tasers, he said.
The remaining weapons have been distributed among uniformed troopers, including some officers assigned to Community Action Teams, who are dispatched to help on special assignments when needed. State Police gang and violent fugitive apprehension units will be outfitted with Tasers in the near future, said McKeon.
While training to use the weapon, McKeon said, some troopers have volunteered to be targeted by the device to get a sense of how the body responds.
Previously, the only troopers to use the weapons were members of the Special Tactical Operations Team, who were given a “handful” of the devices, said David Procopio, a State Police spokesman.
The department has developed a policy governing when troopers may use Tasers. Each use of the weapon is required to be reported, McKeon said.
“It would be appropriate with someone that’s actively resisting and then it could go from there,” said McKeon, who was sworn in as the leader of the State Police in August. “It could be used up to and including when the option of lethal force could be deployed.”
Under the policy, troopers must report using their Tasers even when they have done nothing more than draw the weapon and display it. Those actions are also recorded by a memory chip that tracks when the Taser is activated and deployed, McKeon said.
To avoid lethal confrontations, McKeon said troopers have also been trained in methods to de-escalate the situation and to recognize signs of mental illness and autism. Another training session focused on de-escalating and controlling crowds is set for May.
In June 2015, State Police shot and killed a man described by his family as mentally ill on a footbridge over Storrow Drive near Boston University after he allegedly made “threatening gestures” with a folding knife.
The most recent review by the state of the use of electronic control weapons, including Tasers, found that police officers deployed, warned, or displayed the devices to another person 1,037 times in 2014, according to figures provided by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
In nearly 84 percent of those instances, police officers issued a warning during the confrontation. When the warnings were given, the person being confronted complied — without the device being fired — 45 percent of the time, the public safety agency said.
Though the weapons are considered to be less-than-lethal force, there have been fatalities in Massachusetts involving Tasers.
In 2014, Dominic Graffeo, 56, died after being tased during a violent confrontation with Chelsea police officers. An investigation by the Suffolk district attorney’s office found officers were justified in their actions.
His death was classified as a homicide. Graffeo, the medical examiner ruled, suffered a “sudden death in a person with acute cocaine, ethanol, and oxycodone intoxication following an altercation with police involving the use of electronic control devices and physical restraints.”
Some observers worried that officers might rely too much on Tasers, rather than other means of neutralizing a highly tense situation.
“There’s a lot of evidence that shows that even though Tasers are less lethal they can still be lethal,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “It kind of takes the place of even less lethal means of interacting with people like de-escalation tactics.”