Urbana City Council discusses possible use of Tasers

By Chris Pullam

The Urbana Police Department may soon carry Tasers in addition to pepper spray and standard firearms. 

Representatives of the Urbana Police Department and the University Police Department gave a presentation on the use of Tasers during the Urbana City Council meeting Monday. While law enforcement argued the benefits of using these devices as an alternative to other non-lethal weapons, such as pepper spray and rubber ammunition, a large number of citizens voiced their opposition. 

African-American citizens from the Champaign-Urbana community voiced the majority of the opposition, which lasted almost a full hour before the Taser presentation began. Their main concern was that the use of Tasers could follow the trend of traffic stops and racial profiling.

Many members of the Champaign County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People spoke in opposition against the use of Tasers. As each citizen is allowed only two minutes to speak before the city council, members of the association took turns reading dozens of names of people, the majority of whome were African-American, who have died as a result of Tasers over the past several years.

“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 Patricia Avery, president of the association.

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The use of Tasers has resulted in 540 deaths nationwide, as of 2013, according to an Amnesty International annual report. While African-Americans account for only 13.6 percent of the U.S. population,Avery said they constituted 41 percent of all Taser-related deaths in the U.S. between the years 2003 and 2013.

“Black people and people of color have been human targets for too long,” she said.

Michael Schlosser, the director of the University Police Training Institute, and Patrick Connolly, the Urbana chief of police, explained the many safeguards built into Tasers, as well as the policies that the Urbana police would impose to regulate use.

Whenever a Taser discharges, it records the date, time, temperature, battery life and duration of use. In addition, a Taser Cam attached to the side of the device records audio and visual whenever the safety is disengaged. 

Connelly plans to work with the city’s Civilian Police Review Board to assess each Taser discharge for misuse.

Due to the Anti-Felon Identification program, Tasers also release bits of confetti engraved with the same serial number as the electronic device. This allows investigators to quickly identify the registered owner of any discharged Taser. 

“If there are those officers out there who are abusing it, none of us want them out there representing us,” Schossler said. “Good police officers see this and they say that they don’t want them to be a part of us.”

But these assurances did little to lessen the concerns of citizens who would prefer that law enforcement focus on developing better speech and de=escalation techniques rather than arming officers with more weapons.

Julie Watkins, a Champaign citizen opposed to the implementation of Tasers, said that she would rather have her tax money go toward upgrades in mental health care and the justice system than toward Taser training and purchase. Other members of the community supported the use of Tasers as long as it included a community-involved and balanced approach.

Many of those opposed to Tasers worried about the dangers associated with the electronic devices. 

“Electronic Tasers are not nonlethal weapons, they are less lethal weapons,” Avery said.

Connolly acknowledged that such a controversial tool requires safeguards and training that prepares officers to deal with situations in which the chances of serious injury or fatality to the targets are heightened. Examples of high-risk situations include those that deal with mobile targets or those near water, low body mass index persons, pregnant women and the elderly. 

“The tool is safe as long as they are operated with guidelines,” Connolly said.

Connolly recommends that officers are given 12 hours of training before taking their Tasers onto the street, while the Taser manufacturer only recommends six hours. In addition, police officers would wear Tasers on the opposite hip from their handgun to avoid confusion and would be subject to being Tased before becoming carriers. 

During the presentation, Schossler described the difference between a Taser and a stun gun to eliminate any concern that an association between the two distinct weapons might elicit.

While stun guns prevent hostility through “pain compliance,” Tasers work by causing “neuromuscular incapacitation” and cause little pain following the initial five seconds. They work by firing two electrified probes at a target. When the probes make contact, they send an electronic pulse that mimics that of the human body and affects the muscles’ ability to communicate with the brain. 

The effects of pepper spray, by contrast, can last several hours. According to Schossler, officers who take his course at the University prefer the effects of a Taser to those of pepper spray 99 percent of the time.

Still, officers would be trained not to target the head and chest, as well as to avoid use when circumstances increase the chances of serious injury or fatality. If used correctly, a Taser gives the officer a five-second window in which to subdue the target.

Both Schlosser and Connolly acknowledged that the major chance for harm comes not from the weapons but from the individuals carrying the weapon. However, they believe that training and discipline would reduce the chance of misuse.

“We are proud of our profession,” Schlosser said. “We don’t want these officers on the street. We want them disciplined. We want them punished. We want them possibly fired and maybe even criminal charges because we are out there to do the right thing and they are giving us a bad name.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected].