Some urge Urbana to reject Tasers for police
URBANA — The city council's first public discussion of introducing Tasers within the Urbana police department kicked off with some dissent on Monday night.
Members of Champaign-Urbana's African-American community said they in particular are worried the stun guns would be used more often against black people. Some compared the devices to torture, and they read dozens of names of people of all races who they said have been killed across the country in Taser-related incidents during the past several years.
Police Chief Patrick Connolly has spent the past few weeks making his case in the public and among city officials for Tasers. He has said calls involving people with mental health issues — who sometimes do not react rationally to police officers and may present a danger to themselves or others — are on a sharp rise.
Police also say that the "less-lethal" weapons they have — pepper spray or rubber ammunition — do not always work, and they fear that the day may come where using a handgun is the only option.
Connolly is proposing that the department purchase 10 Tasers and give them to "crisis intervention team" officers, who are specially trained in dealing with people who have mental health or behavioral issues.
On Monday night, Connolly said his "entire presentation is about saving lives," and that using Tasers can reduce the likelihood of injury.
"The tool is safe as long as they're operated within guidelines," he said.
Connolly recommended that the department's policy on use of Tasers include a number of safeguards. Training would emphasize certain "high-risk" situations involving people operating a vehicle or machinery, pregnant women, elderly or infirm people, someone in or near water or someone in an elevated position who might fall.
Officers carrying a Taser would first have to be exposed to it, and they would have to carry it on their belt opposite of their handgun to avoid confusion.
Those officers would also have to complete annual training or certification, and department officials would be allowed to revoke any officer's permission to carry a Taser at any time.
Those are only a few of the preliminary policy recommendations police officials made on Monday night, but for some members of the general public who spoke to the city council, it was not enough.
"This could not come at a worse time, when we are trying to repair the relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement," said Champaign County NAACP President Patricia Avery.
Members of the Champaign County NAACP showed up in numbers to ask the city council to deny police officials' request for Tasers. They took turns at the microphone reading dozens of names of people who have died in Taser-related incidents during the past several years.
Between the Champaign County sheriff's department and University of Illinois police, whose officers already carry Tasers, Avery said the area "has enough Tasers." She said use of the stun guns is "simply inhumane treatment and has been described as torture."
"Black people and people of color have been human targets for too long," Avery said.
Other speakers pointed at the city's police traffic stop data as compiled by the Illinois Department of Transportation. Those numbers show that Urbana police are pulling over black people at higher rates than whites.
They expect those numbers can be extrapolated to use of Tasers, and that black people will be on the receiving end of the electricity more often.
"Take into consideration that we already have a blight with the number of African-Americans in this city that this has happened to," said Urbana resident Hattie Paulk.
Connolly acknowledged those concerns, and said it will be his responsibility to hold his officers accountable if they do not follow department policy in the use of the stun device. He said he also plans to work closely with the civilian police review board to work through any problems.
"We're going to work together as a team to make it even more transparent if at all possible," Connolly said.
A number of Urbana police officers signed cards saying they were in favor of the chief's request for Tasers. Two who spoke said the devices give police a more effective tool in getting combative or dangerous people under control.
Urbana police Sgt. Cory Koker told city council members that the short-term effects of a stun gun can be preferable to the potentially long-term effects of other weapons.
"If a situation were ever to arise, the effects of pepper spray, if any one knows, the effects can last up to an hour," Koker said. "The effects of a baton blow can be debilitating."
Michael Schlosser, the director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, said he has trained more than 1,000 cadets in the use of Tasers. He said he thinks the device itself is not a dangerous tool, and improper use often depends on the person using it.
"If there's proper accountability and proper oversight, then I think we do not have to worry about it being misused," Schlosser said.
He said the Taser has many built-in safeguards to keep its users accountable. And Urbana police are proposing an explicit policy overseeing when the stun guns are and are not to be used. The city's civilian police review board will take a look at every incident where a Taser comes into play.
The safeguards proposed in Urbana are among the most restrictive Schlosser has seen.
"Not all departments will go to the extreme that Chief Connolly is recommending," Schlosser said.
By the numbers
$1,700: Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly expects each Taser to cost this much. With related training equipment and warranties, the total cost could be as high as $26,000. There's no money in the city budget right now, so police would hope to pay for them with grant funding.
2.5 million: The estimated number of times humans have been struck with Tasers — either in the field, training or for research — since they became widely used in 1999.
99.7 percent: This many people escaped Taser strikes with minor or no injuries, according to a Wake Forest University study. The rest suffered significant or potentially lethal injuries.
6: The minimum number of training hours recommended by the company that manufactures Tasers. Urbana police officials are recommending 12 hours for their officers.