Officers renewing request for Tasers

URBANA — Police Chief Patrick Connolly thinks it's time to let Urbana officers carry Tasers, and city officials are anticipating that not everybody in the community will be on the same page.

He and other police officials will ask the city council this month to consider their request for Tasers, while concerns linger that the stun guns will be more of a hazard to the community than a peace-keeping device.

Tasers would not be new to Champaign County law enforcement — sheriff's deputies and University of Illinois police officers carry the devices and are on occasion called to assist Champaign and Urbana officers when they suspect a Taser might be useful. But Connolly said issuing Tasers to 10 Urbana officers would give him and other city officials more oversight and control over how they are used.

Even if the city council says yes — a discussion that will go beyond this month — it will still be a while before any Urbana officer would have a Taser on his or her belt. The stun guns cost $1,700 each, and city officials would wait for federal grant money to purchase the devices. Then each officer needs to be trained in the use of the device, another process that takes significant time.

And Urbana police would start slow. Connolly said the policies governing when it is OK for an officer to draw or deploy a Taser likely would be more restrictive than those of other departments. The civilian police review board would look at each incident where a Taser was deployed.

The idea has been tossed around in the City Building for about a year, but resurfaced again earlier this year when police encountered a bloodied man, high on cocaine and walking in the middle of Main Street, brandishing a knife and cutting his own wrists. He did not listen to officers' commands to drop the weapon and at times started toward onlookers.

An Urbana officer fired and struck the man several times with high-velocity rubber stars, essentially a small rubber ball fired from a special shotgun and designed to cause pain but not serious injury. It's the only "less-lethal" weapon Urbana police officers carry, and the man did not relent.

After a few minutes without deterring the man, a Champaign County sheriff's deputy arrived and fired his Taser. The man collapsed and the officers were on top of him within seconds.

The whole incident was captured on police dashboard video cameras, and it will be shown during an Urbana City Council meeting this month. Connolly said he hopes it displays how dangerous the situation was and how quickly it was brought under control with a Taser — something police have been dealing with more often lately.

"It just got to the point where I'd be remiss if I didn't at least do something," Connolly said.

Connolly said police have been dealing with more "bizarre behavior" and sharp-edged weapons as calls involving the mentally ill are on the rise. He said it is only a matter of time before "we're going to have no option but to use lethal force."

Police say Tasers typically bring dangerous situations to an end with fewer or less severe injuries to both the offender and police officers.

Urbana police Lt. Rich Surles said the department spent just more than $1 million between 2002 and 2012 to cover its officers' duty-related injuries. He said "a huge number" of those could be prevented if officers have something they can use to avoid physical confrontation.

One officer was permanently disabled doing his job last year, Surles said.

"He's never going to be able to have a regular, normal life again because the injury to his shoulder was that catastrophic," Surles said.

Mayor Laurel Prussing said, in the past, she has not been supportive of Tasers. But now she thinks the police chief "has made a pretty convincing case."

"I think we're going to have a public discussion about it," Prussing said. "Everybody is going to have a chance to voice their concerns and learn the pros and cons."

Alderwoman Carol Ammons, D-Ward 3, on Tuesday said she is undecided. She said she plans to do research, review policies and speak with residents and the police chief before making a decision.

"My utmost concern is that the city of Urbana moves forward with the safety and well-being of everyone involved as the focus of this conversation and decision," she said.

Alderman Bill Brown, D-Ward 4, said what Connolly has proposed is "pretty unique for anything I've heard of before," and he is comfortable with the chief's terms. He still wants to see the specifics, though.

"I think I'm probably OK with the purchase for a limited number of officers with the training he suggested and with the certainty of review" by the civilian police review board, Brown said.

Brown said he would like Tasers to be used only as a substitute for deadly force. He would not want to see Tasers used in cases where a suspect has already been detained and is just being uncooperative with officers. He also wants safeguards built in to the department's use of force policy, which guides under what circumstances police may use different methods of subduing uncooperative subjects.

"There's definitely a few people who just don't want them under any circumstances," Brown said. "But I think some people realize, too, that there may be some cases where they may be useful."

Brown added that he's got concerns about Tasers being tied to death. He said the number varies greatly in the research he's seen — anywhere from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 100,000 depending on how the counters treated different causes of death — but he wants that to be instilled in officers' minds.

"There is a possibility (of death) because of heart conditions and just the level of excitement that people are in when they get that," Brown said. "People need to realize that."

City officials are prepared to hear a lot of concerns. Connolly said he has already heard some opposition from some community members with whom he has shared his idea and shown the video.

"People hear and see certain things about the Taser and make assumptions, so we're trying to be as transparent as possible," Connolly said.

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Hondanno wrote on April 17, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Misuse concerns could be quite minimal if TASER’s AXON Flex was part of the plan. It is a "point-of-view video system that improves transparency between law enforcement agencies and their communities, while protecting officers from false claims."