In the last 12 months Forest Park police either arrested or charged 1,744 people. Of those, 26 were purposefully given an electric shock intended to momentarily incapacitate them, allowing officers to take control of the situation.
Sgt. Eric Bell is in charge of the department’s training on the use of Tasers, and pointed to these figures as proof the department is not abusing this tool. Further advancing his argument, Bell said, is a statistic the department doesn’t keep.
Since the village bought Tasers for its officers in September of 2004, Bell said that at least a dozen times the mere threat of him using the device was enough to bring a suspect under control.
“To me that is a very successful use of the Taser,” Bell said.
Averaged over the past year, Forest Park police used their Tasers to stun someone every other week. The department is investigating two recent complaints filed by men who claim they were unnecessarily Tasered.
Unlike with firearms, there is no outside review that determines whether officers are using their stun guns appropriately. In Forest Park, Bell personally reviews each incident. The ranking officer said he has every confidence that Tasers are safe, effective and being used with all due discretion.
“Out of those 26 times there has never been anything that I said, ‘hey, you can’t do that,'” Bell said of the department’s use.
Others, however, are not convinced that stun guns should be used at all, and argue that the Taser’s 50,000 volts has killed hundreds of people across the country.
Amnesty International, a human rights organization with offices across the globe claims that Tasers have played a role in more than 200 deaths in the United States since June of 2001. The group authored a 51-page study in March from which it concluded that in seven cases the person performing the autopsy listed the Taser as a “primary cause of death.” Of the 152 cases studied, Amnesty International reported the medical examiner or coroner cited Tasers as a contributing factor in 23 deaths.
“Despite a lack of independent research on Taser safety, police officers are using these weapons as a routine force tool-rather than as a weapon of last resort,” Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA said in a written statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union also argues that while the manufacturer, Taser International, may not be legally culpable, stun guns have played a critical role in the death of police suspects.
“The catalyst factor of these people dying is the fact that they were shocked with electrical jolts,” Illinois ACLU spokesperson Ed Yohnka said.
The only position taken by the ACLU on the use of Tasers in law enforcement is that they be regarded as a lethal weapon.
In June the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed it is investigating at least 30 deaths in which stun guns were used. According to USA Today, Justice Department spokesperson Glenn Schmitt said the review was proposed last year after law enforcement authorities grew concerned over the increasing number of suspects who died after being hit with a stun gun.
In Forest Park, officers credit their Tasers with preventing a suicide, mitigating suspect injuries and saving taxpayer money by reducing officer injuries. With more than a decade in the uniform, Bell said he’s suffered a broken shoulder, broken fingers and cuts that required stitching. Using the Taser prevents many of those dangerous scenarios from ever developing, Bell said.
“The most effective way to do that is to take the fight out of someone and put them into custody,” Bell said.
Police training only accounts for so much Bell said, and falls way short of preparing officers for every scenario. Department policies on the use of force provide general guidelines, Bell said, but those too can’t account for everything.
In Forest Park, officers receive eight hours of Taser training under Bell or one of two other officers certified to do so. Instructional videos, scenarios and live firings are put into context by the department’s policy on the use of force, Bell said. All but a few of the officers carry a Taser and receive the training annually.
Verbal commands, physical control and stun guns are the first three levels of force outlined in the department’s policy. The scale escalates with handcuffs and batons, chemical agents, impact weapons, K-9s and finally firearms. At any given time an officer has all of these options available to them, according to the policy, and is not obligated to try each one before escalating to the next. “It is not intended that any suspect should ever be allowed to be the first to exercise force, thus gaining an advantage in a physical confrontation,” according to the policy.
Bell said he tells the officers that if using the Taser will stop a crime from occurring or prevent a confrontation, it’s OK to do so.
“It’s an individual officer’s decision on each individual incident,” Bell said.
In October, a 43-year-old woman arrested for shoplifting at Wal-Mart was drive stunned to the floor after refusing to stand up so she could be handcuffed.
Bell said the Taser was likely used for any number of reasons. In a confined space where suspects are detained at the store, confrontations are actually more dangerous because officers can’t get away from the suspect should they get the upper hand. The room is also filled with expensive computer equipment and Bell suggested the woman’s thinking could have been muddled by drugs or alcohol.
In June Bell used his Taser to stop an accused panhandler from walking away from him after telling the man he was under arrest.
“Why would I not use the Taser,” Bell said. “Why wouldn’t I end that chase right there?”
In acknowledging concerns that stun guns might be abused, Bell said any department in any community would hope to prevent such behavior, regardless of the level of force involved. The department’s policies, training and internal reviews are an effort to squash such abuse.
“It’s a concern that we’re trying to prevent,” Bell said.