Records show police use Tasers more often on blacks
Blacks were much more likely than whites to have Tasers fired on them by area police officers in 2004.
According to police reports from Rantoul, Danville, Champaign County, Champaign and Urbana – obtained by The News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act – 64 percent of the people shot with Tasers by police officers in 2004 were black.
In Rantoul, nine out of 13 people fired on were black. According to to the 2000 Census, 16.5 percent of Rantoul's population is black.
In Danville, 20 out of 27 people fired on by Tasers, in reports in which race was listed, were black. The 2000 Census reported that 24.1 percent of Danville's population is black.
The Champaign County sheriff's department used Tasers on seven people in 2004, and two of them were black.
One out of two incidents where a sheriff's deputy was called to the scene by the Champaign police involved a black. One incident in Urbana where a deputy was called involved a white.
The devices aren't used often – about once a week on average last year in the two counties combined. But opponents of a plan to equip Champaign police with Tasers said at the time they were concerned the weapons would be used more often on blacks than on whites.
A Taser is a gunlike device, made by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International, that can be used as a hand-held stun gun, pressed directly against a person.
Tasers can also be used to shoot two darts as far as 21 feet. The darts are connected to the weapon by high-voltage insulated wires. When the darts hit their target, the Taser transmits electrical pulses along the wires and into the body of the target, temporarily paralyzing him.
Urbana resident Aaron Ammons, co-founder of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, a grass-roots organization that fights for social justice, said he's not surprised a majority of those on whom Tasers are used are black.
"The question is, why is it you're seeing African-Americans beaten, railroaded, killed, racially profiled and tased at higher rates than anybody else?" asked Ammons, who is black. "Why is that? I think that's a question communities need to answer."
Fear that Tasers would be used disproportionately against blacks was one of the reasons CU Citizens for Peace and Justice and other community activists worked hard to organize opposition last year to the Champaign police department's planned purchase of 25 Tasers, he said.
When the Champaign police department proposed spending $30,000 to purchase Tasers in February 2004, the head of the Urban League of Champaign County objected out of concern that they would be used more often on blacks than on whites.
"I'm very concerned how these will be used, and I know who they will be used on," said Tracy Parsons, president of the Urban League, at a meeting when the plan was discussed last year.
Champaign police dropped the plans, with Police Chief R. T. Finney saying it was more important to improve police relations with the community than to purchase new weapons.
"What should be my priority, pushing the Tasers or improving my relationship with the community?" Finney asked at the time.
But other area police departments – including the Rantoul and Danville police and the Champaign County sheriff's office– use the devices.
Parsons said the police reports confirm his concerns.
"The data doesn't surprise me at all," Parsons said. "It lets us know that African-Americans are two or three times as likely to have police contact than the white community. I don't think Tasers are a tool the police officers need."
Police say Tasers are a safer and more effective tool than guns or pepper spray to protect people who are combative or resist arrest. Police say they have policies in place that determine when Tasers are used, that Tasers are effective in domestic violence situations and that most cases in which Tasers are used are in response to calls for help from citizens.
Former Rantoul Police Chief Paul Dollins said he believes his department has been responsible in its use of Tasers, noting they were only used an average of once per month in Rantoul.
"The data from the police reports could be interpreted as one-sided," Dollins said. "But five of the 13 incidents in Rantoul were domestic violence calls. The others involved shoplifting and traffic-related offenses. The people involved were all resisting a police officer. There were two cases of people resisting police physically."
Roy Marcelin of Rantoul, who served as acting president of the Champaign County NAACP from 2004 to 2005, said he is concerned that police may be concentrating their Taser use on minorities.
"When we hear about so many minorities becoming targets of Tasers, it is time that the use of Tasers be curtailed," Marcelin said. "I can understand the police using Tasers for domestic violence situations, but I don't think the Rantoul police should be using Tasers so much."
Former Rantoul Deputy Chief Eddie Carter, who is black, said race is not a consideration when officers decide whether to use Tasers.
"When we respond to calls, it really doesn't matter what their race is," Carter said. "We have to deal with them anyway."
Race is not the only issue at play when talking about police use of force, Ammons said. Socioeconomic status is another factor, he said.
"You're not going to find rich people who are being tased, beaten or killed," he said. "That's not going to happen. ... The poor and the uneducated are going to be the ones who suffer the most."
"The vast majority of the cases where we used Tasers are situations in response to calls from citizens for help.," Dollins said. "Maybe African-Americans are more likely to call us for help in situations like these."
Kimberlie Kranich of Champaign, a CU Citizens for Peace and Justice member who was also active in the anti-Taser campaign, said she isn't surprised that blacks make up a majority of the people being tased in the area.
"One of the reasons for our opposing it was we knew this new tool would be used disproportionately against African-American folks," said Kranich, who is white. "We knew from personal stories and statistics there was different treatment based on the race of suspects. Is this just another toy that can be used in a threatening way to intimidate and harass people? This has been our concern."
Larry Thomason, spokesman for the Danville Police Department, said the police reports show that the individuals a Taser was used on were combative or resisted arrest.
"I am not specifically aware of any incident involving a Taser directed at a specific race," Thomason said. "It's a matter of a person breaking the law."
Thomason said Danville police officers must file a report every time a Taser is used to make sure the use of the device was warranted.
"Disciplinary action would be taken with any improper usage," Thomason said.
Thomason said no disciplinary action has been taken over the use of a Taser by a Danville officer.
The Rev. Floyd Dabney, former president of the Danville chapter of the NAACP, said he has never heard any negative complaints about Taser usage in Danville.
"I think the Taser, to me, is a good police weapon," Dabney said. "I'm not going to say there is anything racial there. I'm black myself, and they don't pick on me. If those people weren't out there doing something wrong, they never would have been bothered."
"I'm not concerned," said Steve Gray, chairman of the Rantoul Fire and Police Commission, which is charged with monitoring, hiring, firing and disciplining police. "Our police officers are doing due diligence, and these guys are absolutely not discriminating. I believe they are color blind. Tasers are good because they can be used to defuse a dangerous situation without using a greater force. These guys could care less what a person's color is. If a situation warrants using a Taser, they are going to use a Taser."
The Vermilion County sheriff's department, which has had Tasers for two years, does not keep statistics on their use, but Sheriff Pat Hartshorn said deputies use them less frequently than Danville police.
"I have had no complaints from any groups on the usage of Tasers," Hartshorn said.
Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh said Tasers are necessary to provide protection for his deputies, many of whom work alone miles from the nearest backup help.
"Tasers help to keep my deputies safe," he said. "A deputy could be attacked way out in Longview, and the nearest backup deputy might be 20 minutes away."
Robert Jones, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said his association has not taken a position either for or against Taser use.
"The use of Tasers is an individual police department's choice," said Jones, who is police chief in Gurnee.
Dollins said he believes Tasers help protect people and officers from getting hurt. He said police often use Tasers because the lives of bystanders are at risk.
"It isn't unusual in these emotional situations for people to decide to turn on the officer," Dollins said. "The officer becomes the bad guy because the officer is trying to intervene. Working in law enforcement is a high-risk calling."
"I think police officers are usually defensive about the use of Tasers," Parsons said. "That is the reason we were concerned about Tasers in the first place."
Dollins said nobody was seriously injured in Rantoul's 13 incidents because of a Taser.
"Some have had injuries, but they were completely unrelated from the use of Tasers," Dollins said.
Hartshorn also reported no serious injuries in Vermilion County when a Taser has been used.
"I think it is a technology resource for law enforcement that allows us to subdue violent suspects." he said.
Using alternative force such as a nightstick, firearm or wrestling someone to the ground leaves a much longer-lasting effect on the suspect, Hartshorn said.
"When a person gets hit with a nightstick, I can guarantee it will hurt a week later," Hartshorn said.