Taser debate will be bitter

Taser debate will be bitter

Tasers, a common tool in law enforcement, are the source of major controversy in Urbana.

Urbana aldermen are in the initial stages of deciding whether to arm some police officers with Tasers — stun gun devices that can immobilize a resisting offender and are common in law enforcement. But it's going to take a while because, as noted by Alderman Eric Jakobsson, proponents and opponents of the plan come from "very, very different perspectives."

That's an understated way of describing what appears to be irreconcilable differences.

Discussions surrounding the debate don't focus so much on the propriety of Tasers, devices routinely carried by officers in other jurisdictions including county deputies and university police officers, as a law enforcement tool, but on Chief Connolly's motives for requesting them.

Here is a video Connolly has been showing to demonstrate the use of a Taser in an Urbana incident.

Connolly argued that Tasers, if used properly, can be a life-saving tool, one that avoids serious injuries both to suspected offenders as well as police officers. His critics, many of whom were represented by members of the local NAACP, contended that the real purpose of Tasers is to "torture" and "intimidate" people, most of whom are members of minority groups. Group members used part of the council's April 28 meeting to read the names of people who died after being Tased, citing what they called the disproportionate numbers of minority group members involved.

So that is where it stands and likely will remain, whatever decision council members ultimately make. That Chief Connolly has proposed an extremely high level of oversight for Taser use, including a review of each incident by the city's Police Review Board, does not impress his critics.

In an emotional debate, Urbana resident Carletta Donaldson spoke for many opponents when she expressed a general distaste for using the kind of force that Tasers represent to her.

"Mental illness people don't need to be punished with a Taser. There's got to be another way," said Donaldson, who noted that a Taser demonstration she witnessed brought tears to her eyes.

Donaldson's comments reflect the division of opinion.

Properly used, Tasers are not intended to punish, but to gain control of individuals who are resisting arrest. A good example of effective use of Tasers comes from a March incident involving Urbana police, one recorded on police cameras and shown at the council meeting.

Police received a report of a white male standing in the middle of East Main Street who was covered with blood. The man, high on drugs, was cutting his wrists, shouting and staggering around the middle of the street. The man's girlfriend, who was convulsed in tears, was trying to persuade him to stop cutting himself.

While Urbana officers tried to reason with an unreasoning individual, they are were required to keep a gathering crowd at a safe distance and prevent the armed man from approaching and threatening neighborhood residents. The incident remained a standoff until a county deputy equipped with a Taser quickly subdued the individual with a jolt of electricity that allowed officers to disarm him, place him in handcuffs and take him to the hospital.

Was that individual "punished" with a Taser? Or was he subdued in a manner that best served both his safety as well as the officers involved?

But Tasers don't always work. Readers may recall the April 2009 car chase and fatal shooting on Interstate 74 of a mentally ill former medical student who was armed with a machete and refused police officers' commands to submit to arrest. Officers tried unsuccessfully to use a Taser to subdue Oluwatofunmi Kaiyewu, perhaps because the shots didn't adequately penetrate Kaiyewu's jacket. Officers ultimately shot and killed Kaiyewu, an action that was ruled justifiable homicide but still represented a failure by law enforcement and a tragedy for the Kaiyewu family.

Police obviously did not want to fire their weapons but did so after trying the Taser. So when Donaldson says "there's got to be another way" besides using a Taser, she's right. But those other ways include use of lethal force or lesser uses of force (a physical struggle, batons, pepper spray) that can cause permanent injury. Wishing for some undefined better way won't make it so.

Of course, Taser use is no better than the person who's handling the weapon. A county correctional officer was fired and prosecuted after unnecessarily using a Taser on a jail inmate he didn't like. Abuses are always a possibility. Deaths as a result of Taser use have occurred. That's why Chief Connolly is proposing significant training for a special group of Crisis Intervention Team officers who would carry Tasers. That's why he wants unprecedented review of any Taser use.

Still, it comes down to trust, and, for understandable reasons, a large segment of the minority community doesn't trust any police department. There's no getting around that dichotomy of opinion, guaranteeing that when this issue is finally resolved, however it is resolved, people will be unhappy.

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