By Dan Hinkel
CHICAGO — The Chicago Police Department has tightened its policy on Taser use, rewriting the rules to discourage officers from shocking people who are running away or otherwise vulnerable to injury.
The change drew little public notice when the department enacted new use-of-force policies in October.
The revised order was issued a month and a half after a Chicago Tribune investigation detailing the department’s reliance on the weapon pointed out that the rule changes the department had announced did not specifically ban shocking people who simply run away and pose no serious threat. That prohibition has been adopted by other large police departments and endorsed by reform advocates and use-of-force experts who note that Taser shocks can cause people to fall and sustain devastating head injuries.
Facing a controversy sparked by officers’ use of force, Superintendent Eddie Johnson oversaw a broad revision of the department’s policies and introduced the new rules in May. Experts criticized the Taser policy as too permissive, while the union representing rank-and-file cops argued that the department didn’t even have the right to change the rules without bargaining with the union.
But five months after the new rules were announced, the department issued a Taser policy containing a lengthy revision. The order now includes a section that advises officers not to shock people who run away, are intoxicated or could fall and suffer a head injury, among other things. The new language stops short of firmly banning Taser uses under those circumstances but says that “when practicable, department members should avoid” those uses.
The department’s force policies are significant not just as guidelines but because they dictate conduct that can lead to discipline for an officer.
The rules apply to a weapon that top department officials have increasingly embraced as an alternative to shooting people. The department has increased its stock of the weapons from about 745 in 2015 to about 4,000 now — enough for every officer responding to calls to have one, said department spokesman Frank Giancamilli. And the department plans to buy about 3,000 more soon, he said.
The rule change is a step in the right direction, said Dominique Franklin Sr., whose 23-year-old son died after an officer deployed a Taser while trying to arrest him for allegedly stealing a bottle of vodka from a downtown convenience store in 2014. Dominique Franklin Jr. fell and hit his head on a pole. He died.
His father said he suspects little will change unless the department’s culture also changes and discipline grows more reliable.
“Too many cops do stuff because they feel they can get away with it,” he said.
Giancamilli said department officials made “several minor changes” to the new force rules before they were enacted in October that were based on “feedback and questions from officers during the initial training on the new policy.”
“These changes give police officers additional explicit guidance to take into account before force is considered,” Giancamilli wrote in an email.
The new policies face a challenge from the city’s largest police union, which filed a complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board arguing that the department violated the union’s collective bargaining rights by implementing new rules without negotiating. That challenge is pending.
Martin Preib, spokesman for the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, said that the additional Taser restrictions are not reasonable and the policies should have been subject to bargaining.
“We have stated frequently that the city is not negotiating policies when (it) should be,” Preib wrote in an email.
Johnson changed the force rules after a controversy sparked two years ago by the court-ordered release of video of an officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. The video led to calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation as well as protests rooted in long-standing dissatisfaction with the department’s treatment of minorities. The U.S. Department of Justice found this year that officers routinely used excessive force, often against minorities, with little reason to fear consequences.
In August, the Tribune investigation into about 4,700 Taser uses over the last decade found that the weapon’s use has been loosely overseen and that African-Americans made up nearly three-quarters of the people targeted.
Experts and reform advocates, meanwhile, criticized the department’s force rules as too loose because they didn’t specifically ban officers from shocking people who simply flee, a prohibition adopted by some other large police agencies, including the New Orleans Police Department.
Under the policy released two months ago, Chicago police must “balance the risks and benefits” of using the weapon while considering factors including the threat to the officer, the subject and the public, as well as the likely outcome. The rewritten order calls on officers to generally avoid shocking people who run, are in a tree or other elevated position or are otherwise likely to fall and suffer a head injury. The rule also warns officers against shocking anyone driving a vehicle or riding a bicycle.
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who is suing the department over its practices, said the new policy does not go far enough. Advising officers to avoid shocking people with a Taser in certain situations is a half-measure, he said.
“They still refuse to stop telling … officers that it’s OK to Taser people who pose no immediate threat to anyone,” he said. “You need hard and fast rules on this.”
©2017 Chicago Tribune
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