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Doubling Down on Force With Tasers Makes Police Problems Worse

The national trend of sanctioning the increased use of police Tasers ignores the underlying problems with using force.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ushered in 2016 with an announcement that dumbfounded many activists: In the coming months, the Chicago Police Department will double its supply of Tasers, placing the weapons in the hands of every responding officer, and in every beat car.

This move is part of a national push to arm more police with conducted-energy weapons. The percentage of local police departments authorizing such usage increased from 60 percent in 2007 to 81 percent in 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2015. But while proponents of this trend argue that arming police with Tasers could reduce the number of people shot each year by the police, critics point out that supplying police with yet another weapon could simply increase misuse.

“I don’t understand the mindset that how you end police violence is by providing more tools that police can use violently,” said Mariame Kaba, a member of We Charge Genocide, which documents police brutality and violence in Chicago.

In Emanuel’s latest attempt to salvage public fidelity in his office and city law enforcement, this may be his most tone-deaf decision yet. “Ultimately, what we are doing is injecting some humanity into the work of our police department and our police officers,” the Chicago mayor said at a press conference on December 30, 2015.

By presenting Tasers as an alternative to lethal force, despite pairing this new protocol with much-needed crisis intervention training for officers, the mayor failed to recognize that Tasers can, and have, killed people. And this has happened in Chicago.

“The problem of police is that they tend to rely on force as their first choice.”

Take the case of Dominique Franklin Jr., a 23-year-old whom Chicago police tased repeatedly in May 2014, leading to his death two weeks later. Franklin is named in a December 2014 concluding report by the United Nation’s Committee Against Torture, which said it was “appalled at the number of reported deaths resulting from the use of electrical discharge weapons.”

“My friend, Dominique Franklin, is lying dead in a coffin,” said Ethan Viets-VanLear, who was part of We Charge Genocide’s youth delegation that presented to the UN in Geneva. “He was killed by a Chicago police officer who tased him twice while handcuffed, leaving him in a coma to die.”

Franklin died three months before Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited a national conversation about police violence. And Franklin died exactly five months before 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke.

Newly released data by the Invisible Institute (where I work as a journalist) shows that Juan Yanez, one of the police officers accused in a wrongful death lawsuit by Franklin’s father, had a long history of misconduct complaints: 22 in all, roughly the same number as Van Dyke. Yanez was disciplined once and reprimanded once, according to the Citizens Police Data Project. Several of Yanez’s undisciplined complaints allege use of force, though it is unclear from the city’s raw data whether Tasers were involved.

“The problem of police is that they tend to rely on force as their first choice, rather than reserving force for the rare occasion when no other method will work,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.

The Chicago Police Department’s culture of using force – and covering it up – is the underlying pathology. Now, the mayor’s decision to further arm officers appears to officially underwrite, rather than deter, the use of force. To be sure, in the short-term, a Taser may spare some lives that would otherwise be claimed by police bullets. In McDonald’s shooting death, the responding officers didn’t have a Taser, and they followed the teen as they waited for one to arrive on scene.

According to Amnesty International, at least 540 people in the United States died after being shocked with Tasers from 2001 through 2012. In 2007, the UN described the use of Tasers as a form of torture and a violation of its international human rights treaty. The New York Times editorial board also labeled use of the weapons as torture in an opinion piece about officers in schools: “Torturing Children at School.”

While tasing deaths are rare, the majority of these incidents involve unarmed people, the American Civil Liberties Union has found. In January 2015, the Miami New Times published a yearlong investigation exposing the misuse of Tasers by three of Miami’s police departments, which showed how officers use Tasers in incidents where there is no arrest or physical danger. The investigation also revealed how cops tase homeless and mentally ill people – and even tased a 6-year-old kindergarten student.

Police tasing has evolved as a commonplace practice. According to the Miami investigation, more than 17,000 US law enforcement agencies use Tasers, deploying them, on average, 904 times a day. During the first weekend of 2016, Cincinnati police used a Taser on a person at a Walmart store that law enforcement has dubbed “the most-shoplifted Walmart in America.” Also on January 2, in Colorado Springs, police tased a woman for not exiting her vehicle. She was suspected of drunk driving.

The members of We Charge Genocide, along with many other activists within the Black Lives Matter movement, see the use of Tasers by officers as no exception to ongoing police violence. But others, including some Black Lives Matter activists, are more specifically concerned with stopping the bleeding from police gun-shooting deaths. Campaign Zero, a policy group formed by some Black Lives Matter activists in response to critics calling for the movement to articulate a specific agenda, recently released a set of policy prescriptions that call on police officers to carry “less-lethal” weapons, citing Seattle Police Department policy, which also emphasizes “de-escalation-first” tactics.

After expanding its Taser usage, Seattle claims to have gone an entire year in 2003 without a fatal shooting by police. The case study is supported by some experts at the National Institute of Justice who report that stun guns reduce injuries to those involved in cop-suspect conflicts. Yet this finding seems to say more about force as a go-to option for cops than it does about the mode or means of using force. Swapping a gun with a Taser to save a life or reduce injuries can distract from the real question of how the police should engage with civilians in the first place.

In Chicago, the activist organization Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, which catalyzed the city’s historic decision to provide reparations to survivors of police torture, lists the egregious use of Tasers as one of the ravages of racially motivated police violence it seeks to end.

Starting in 1971, under former Commander Jon Burge, more than 100 men, mostly Black, were tortured by a midnight crew of officers – notorious for using cattle prods to electrically shock the testicles of men they had apprehended. This happened under the cover of darkness, a police secret for 20 years that slowly seeped out into the city, yet took decades to acknowledge. Emanuel was the first to officially apologize, in an effort to “to bring this dark chapter of Chicago’s history to a close,” he said in April 2015. His mistake at the time was casting the Burge torture as a thing of the past.

At the December 30, 2015, press conference for the Taser announcement, neither Emanuel nor acting Chicago Police Superintendent John Escalante would comment on the double fatal police shooting from the previous weekend, which undoubtedly prompted the swift announcement of 2016 policy changes. But Escalante did provide these chilling words: “It is based on the most important principle of the CPD [Chicago Police Department] and that is to preserve life and the safety of all persons involved.”

Soon, true to the city’s sanctioned record of shocking people with electrical devices, a 50,000-volt jolt will be inches away from all Chicagoans who encounter responding police officers. Portable and easy to use.