Urbana City Council approves Tasers despite community outcry

By Fatima Farha

Despite concerns raised by members of the community and one city council member, the Urbana City Council approved an ordinance allowing the Urbana Police Department to purchase six Tasers at Monday’s meeting.

The Urbana City Council has been discussing the purchase of Tasers since April 2014, and it has been widely debated by the community. The majority of the city council was in favor of the ordinance, with an 8-1 vote. 

Alderman Eric Jakobsson, Ward 2, said while the decision may seem unjust, there is a greater threat in not approving ordinance, as the Tasers serve as an alternative option to more lethal weapons such as batons and firearms.

“We were told tonight, if we voted, shame on us,” Jakobsson said. “Believing as I do, judging as I do, providing police officers with this option will reduce injury, will reduce the level of violence. It would be a shame on me if I didn’t vote for this, and I will.”

During the public input portion of the meeting, 12-year-old Urbana resident Saba Manetti-Tesfaye came up to speak and burst into tears, calling out the council for their decision.

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“If you want people to be really terrified of the police, you are doing a wonderful job,” Manetti-Tesfaye said. “I hoped that Urbana would be different from all other places, but I am recognizing that it’s not much different from anywhere else, and it’s scary — it’s scaring me.”

Following Manetti-Tesfaye’s comments, community member Benjamin Stone stepped up to the platform to give his own input. 

“The first time something goes wrong with the Tasers, think about how you’re confirming her fears, how you’re confirming everything that she just said she is afraid of,” Stone said. “And I hope you think about tonight and I hope to God it hurts.”

Danielle Chynoweth, a co-founder of the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, said firmly that the council needed to have the town hall meeting it promised, during which it could have understood the fears of the community members.

Chynoweth, a former city council member, said the council could have moved toward improving the relationship between the community and the police but did the exact opposite. She said many community members feel they are racially profiled and monitored and now they will feel even more unsafe.

“I really think the conversation is less about weapons and more about relationships,” Chynoweth said. “In taking the steps that the council did last night they further alienated and injured their relationship with poor people and people of color in the community.”

Mayor Laurel Prussing said she agrees there should be more conversation with the communities, but she did not want to delay the decision.

The Urbana Police department is very well-trained, she said, and during their training they are also taught to get rid of their personal prejudice. The six officers who will be given the Tasers have all undergone crisis intervention training. 

“I think we are aware there is a great misunderstanding between some members of the community and the UPD,” Prussing said. “It shouldn’t be a conversation that just lasts for two weeks. This needs to go on, how the community can understand the police, and how the police can understand the community.”

Alderman Diane Marlin, Ward 7, said Tasers have often been used in Urbana by officers from the University of Illinois Police Department and the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office. With this ordinance, she said, the policy gives officers accountability in their own jurisdiction, instead of relying on those who cannot be held accountable in Urbana for their actions. 

Along with authorizing the use of Tasers, council members also voted to have the Civilian Police Review Board review every single instance a Taser is discharged, treating each case separately. 

Alderman Charlie Smyth, Ward 1, said the board was initially given the job of working in groups of four to review each deployment, concentrating on the fatality of the use and connecting it to other instances.

“Now they’re going to be working with a single case and they won’t be able to develop any patterns or they’ll have to review against a checklist — why was it used, what was the situation, and here is the policy and is it or isn’t it within the guidelines of the policy,” Smyth said.

The council members, the Civilian Police Review Board and the police department will continue to review how the Tasers are being used over the course of the year, after which another discussion will take place concerning whether or not changes should be made to the policy and whether the police department should continue using Tasers. 

Fatima can be reached at [email protected]