Committees debate use of Tasers in county jails

ME Online

ME Online

By Sky Opila

On Monday night, the Champaign County Board Justice and Social Services Committee met to discuss, among other topics, the policy and procedure regarding the use of Tasers in Champaign County jails.

Several members of the community, including members of the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, spoke out during public participation against the use of Tasers by the sheriff’s department.

“We are calling for immediate moratorium of Taser use in the county jail,” said Brian Dolinar, member of the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, and a writer for the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. Dolinar also read from several reports of investigations launched by the sheriff’s department in regards to abuse of Tasers by one of their former officers, Sgt. William Alan Myers.

Sheriff Dan Walsh spoke on behalf of the sheriff’s department in support of the use of Tasers in order to help ensure the safety of officers. Walsh presented the board with videos showing situations that spun out of control when no Taser was available for use. Also, he showed a video created by the sheriff’s department showing a demonstration of a Taser being used on a woman, and the small barb marks left in the woman’s back from the Taser.

“I think (a Taser) is a useful tool,” Walsh told the Committee. Several officers offered testimony about incidents they said could have ended much safer for officers if Tasers had been available for use. However, before November 2003, Tasers were not available for use by the Champaign County sheriff’s department.

The use of Tasers has come under a lot of scrutiny due to the pending trial of William Alan Myers, a 14-year veteran of the sheriff’s department accused of using excessive force on detainees in the county jail. Myers’ case has not yet seen any court action thus far, as it has received three continuances since the first appearance in court on Dec. 1, 2006. Myers is expected to enter a plea bargain with the state’s attorney.

“What Mr. Myers did was not an honest mistake,” Walsh said. “There is a criminal case pending that we initiated.”

Walsh could not comment further on the case because it is pending.

Additionally, Walsh said the sheriff’s department has been taking measures to ensure safe and responsible use of Tasers in the county jail. The department has purchased cameras that attach to all of the Tasers recording their usage. They are also asking the county board for $250,000 to increase the camera system in the booking room of the jail. The proposed system will add more cameras and allow the department to record video, a capability currently not available in the jail.

“At each jail, the supervisor is allowed to carry a Taser; that Taser has the camera on it,” Walsh said. “When (the Taser) is turned on, the camera engages.”

Nevertheless, community members are still concerned about the continued usage of Tasers in jails.

“Increasingly, what we’re noticing is Taser use as a torture weapon,” said Belden Fields, Urbana resident and professor in political science at the University. “I am asking the county board … not to put anymore money in the budget for Tasers.”