Emanuel touts Tasers, training to cut Chicago police shootings
Wading through a crisis that has engulfed the Chicago Police Department, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday rolled out his latest short-term steps, suggesting that arming more police with Tasers and training them to make tense situations “less confrontational and more conversational” could reduce fatal shootings by officers.
While Emanuel presented the proposals as a path to a “new reality” in Chicago policing, experts and the city’s own data indicate that reducing violent episodes between police and civilians will require additional measures. Both of the mayor’s proposals are expansions of techniques and equipment that have been available to officers for years, but neither prevented controversial police killings that have roiled the city.
Some Chicago police have long carried Tasers, which pack a potentially incapacitating electric jolt, and city statistics show that when the department expanded use of them in 2010, that did not lead to an immediate drop in police shootings. The devices have resulted in community relations problems of their own, spawning allegations in Chicago and elsewhere that police shocked civilians without justification.
Training officers how to de-escalate violent situations is generally worthwhile, experts said, though city officials provided scant detail as to what the newest training would entail. Training and equipment may mean little without effective supervision and accountability for officers who violate rules, and introducing more weapons could actually make the situation worse if the department doesn’t change as well, experts said.
The scene Wednesday at City Hall has become familiar to Emanuel since the November release of a video showing an officer shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times. The mayor has tried to buy himself time to figure out how to solve systemic, decades-old problems at the Police Department. But he again found himself at a packed news conference, responding to the latest crisis.
This time, the mayor cut short a family vacation after 10 days in Cuba to deal with the fallout from the early Saturday morning fatal police shootings of a 19-year-old college student and a 55-year-old mother of five identified as an innocent bystander.
Emanuel, joined by interim police Superintendent John Escalante, suggested the proposals would help ensure that officers’ perspectives are changed so that “force can be the last option, not the first choice.”
“There’s a difference between whether someone can use a gun and when they should use a gun. And we as a city must train for that difference,” Emanuel said.
Escalante said, “Our goal is to change the way officers think when they approach a critical incident by establishing time and distance to allow more prudent thinking and physical space to promote a safer environment.”
The Department of Justice is investigating whether Chicago police have systematically violated peoples’ civil rights, and Emanuel acknowledged that it will take more than Tasers and training to change the department’s culture, one he has previously said fosters a “code of silence” among cops. After the McDonald shooting, officers filed reports that did not match the video footage, and the city fought at length to keep the video out of public view.
“Obviously, we as a city have a lot of work to do, and changing the policing culture will not and cannot be done just overnight,” Emanuel said. “These policies are not the end of the challenge. They are the beginning of the solution (to problems) that Chicago has faced for decades.”
Tasers have been a part of policing in Chicago for more than a decade. The Police Department equipped about 200 officers with Tasers in 2004 and expanded the arsenal to about 600 in 2010.
But city statistics suggest the expansion of Taser use then didn’t quickly dent the shooting numbers. According to the city’s Independent Police Review Authority, incidents involving Tasers jumped from about 200 in 2009 to nearly 900 the next year, and then remained above 700 in the two following years. Meanwhile, shootings — including those in which a person was hit and ones in which the rounds missed — hovered around 100 per year in the years just before and after the expansion, according to IPRA’s numbers.
Both shootings and Taser incidents dropped together, however, beginning in 2012.
Currently, about 1 in 5 of the city’s police officers is certified in the use of Tasers, and the city has about 700 of the devices. The goal is to make sure about 40 percent of officers are trained in their use, and 1,400 are available, Escalante said.
Once that’s done, the city will require that every car responding to incidents have a Taser available, Emanuel said. The mayor noted that none of the numerous cars that responded to the Laquan McDonald incident was equipped with a Taser.
“Obviously, if you have eight officers, like in the Laquan McDonald situation, all calling for a Taser, and none of ‘em have it, we have a problem and it has to be addressed,” Emanuel said.
It’s not clear whether any officer had a Taser at the scene during the latest controversial shooting, that of Quintonio LeGrier, 19, and Bettie Jones, 55, early Saturday morning on the West Side. A source has said LeGrier swung a baseball bat at officers and was threatening his father before he was shot; police have acknowledged the officer shot Jones by accident.
There already was a standing department order, issued in October 2014, requiring every Taser-certified officer to carry one while on duty, and Escalante said he reinforced that requirement Monday by reissuing the order.
“We expect full compliance,” Escalante said.
Tasers can reduce injuries to police and suspects, experts said. But the equipment has to come with policies encouraging appropriate use, along with effective training, supervision and punishment for officers who misuse the weapons, experts said. The Chicago Police Department’s history is riddled with episodes illustrating gaps in supervision and accountability, and the rollout of more Tasers will be a “disaster” without those safeguards, said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on Tasers.
The Police Department’s general order on force options, issued in March, gives officers broad leeway in deploying the weapons, authorizing them against attackers and people who flee or make an “evasive movement of the arm.” Experts criticized that order as too broad, saying officers should use the weapons only on more aggressive subjects.
De-escalation is also not new to the Police Department. The agency’s 2012 order on the use of force says officers should work to use “persuasion, advice and warning” prior to the use of force.
Starting next week, all officers will receive some early training at roll calls and through the use of streaming video — but plans for more thorough training are being developed, department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. That will include bulletins, in-person scenario training, use of force and legal training yearly.
A departmental order governing the use of force that remains in effect says the key objective of using force is to “ensure control of a subject with the reasonable force necessary.”
Guglielmi said that a revised directive is planned. He said in an email that new departmental policy will introduce the concept of “force mitigation,” encouraging officers to use time and choices to resolve an incident with the “least amount of appropriate force.” The goal is for officers to respond to incidents “with the foremost regard for the preservation of life and the safety of all persons involved,” he said.
The president of the Chicago Police Department’s largest union said that de-escalation techniques have been taught for years. But rather than through training, Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said inexperienced officers get better at de-escalating conflicts by latching onto more learned, seasoned police officers.
“It doesn’t come out of the classroom,” Angelo said. “It comes from years on the street.”
Angelo doesn’t think the Police Department over the years has put more emphasis on the “shoot or don’t shoot” philosophy than it has de-escalation.
“I think that every generation of policing, the last thing you want to do is use your weapon,” he said. “You want to be the person that goes your entire career to never having used your weapon.”
When asked whether Tasers would reduce the number of times officers use their guns, Emanuel described Tasers as a “tool” that with de-escalation training, which has been used in other major cities such as New York, go together like “hand and glove.”
Merrick Bobb, whose California-based Police Executive Resource Center is overseeing federal court-ordered reforms within the Seattle Police Department, said de-escalation policies save lives and prevent injuries, noting that police departments throughout the country have adopted such policies to fulfill obligations under court orders.
In 2014, several Seattle police officers filed a lawsuit — which was dismissed — alleging that their department’s policy on de-escalation put their own lives at risk.
David Klinger, a professor in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said de-escalation is a good strategy, though he worried about police spending too much time formulating responses to dangerous situations that could lead to harm to officers and civilians.
“So it’s not just an officer-safety issue, it’s a citizen-safety issue,” Klinger said.
Reforming the Chicago Police Department has become a defining issue of Emanuel’s tenure. So far, the mayor has struggled to regain his footing amid the twists and turns that have followed the Nov. 24 release of a police dashboard camera video showing the African-American 17-year-old McDonald being shot by white Officer Jason Van Dyke.
Emanuel tried to keep the video under wraps, but a judge ordered its release. The mayor stood by police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, then fired him days later. Emanuel initially described the Van Dyke shooting as the actions of one bad cop before later apologizing and telling aldermen the department was plagued by a “code of silence” and needed “complete and total reform.”
In addition, the mayor eventually welcomed the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights probe into the policies and practices of Chicago police after first calling it “misguided.”
By stressing de-escalation tactics Wednesday, the mayor may be trying to get ahead of the Justice Department probe, which could take years. Similar investigations in other big U.S. cities have led to court-ordered consent decrees that require de-escalation training — as the mayor acknowledged on Wednesday.
Emanuel announced the new policies on police training and Taser use late Tuesday, after aldermen had spent the day calling for him to do so.
On Wednesday, Emanuel was asked why he didn’t make such changes in the previous four-plus years in office. The mayor pointed to other moves he’s made while acknowledging his administration hasn’t “done everything we have to under my tenure.”
“It’s not only over four or five years,” he added. “It’s four or five decades in the making. And the changes that we’re trying to do will also not be done in just four or five years, but we will finish the job top to bottom in completely doing the effort.”
Hours before Emanuel’s news conference, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Tasers alone would not solve the longstanding problems between police officers and Latino and African-American residents.
“It’s hard for me to believe that the police in the city of Chicago could get away with the shootings and executions of young black and brown men if the victims of those shootings and executions were white,” Preckwinkle said. “There’s a culture in the police department, I think, and in our larger society that black and brown lives don’t matter in the same way that the lives of white people matter.
“And that’s something we have to address more broadly in our society, but of course in our police department. And I think that’s the challenge. It’s not so much the weapons that are in the hands of our officers but their attitudes toward the people that they’re serving.”
Tribune reporters Cynthia Dizikes and Patrick M. O’Connell contributed.
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