At the same time Forest Park police officers dramatically stepped up their use of department issued stun guns, the department hid public records documenting those incidents, according to an analysis of records obtained by the Forest Park Review.
In the six months between Nov. 1, 2006, and April 25, 2007, the Forest Park Police Department used its Tasers to subdue suspects on 20 separate occasions. By comparison, in the 12 months prior to November 2006, 25 suspects were stunned, receiving a shock of 50,000 volts.
During an eight month span between Sept. 1, 2006, and the end of April, one of every 25 suspects arrested or charged in Forest Park was zapped with an electric shock.
Police department records revealing these statistics were released to the Review in response to a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act. However, those same reports were withheld from the department’s weekly log that’s routinely made available to the public.
Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said investigators can withhold a public record if releasing the document in part or in its entirety would jeopardize an investigation. Other reasons for withholding such records include the naming of undercover officers or informants.
“The presumption is you have access to it unless it meets one of those exemptions,” Craven said.
Of the 20 separate cases in which an officer used their Taser in the last six months, only one incident report was released as part of the department’s weekly activity log. That arrest on Feb. 16 stemmed from a domestic disturbance and portions of the report were redacted.
The majority of the other 19 cases involved allegations of disorderly conduct, criminal trespassing, battery and resisting arrest.
Village Administrator Mike Sturino said he is ultimately responsible for making such records available to the public, but relies in part on recommendations from the police department as to which documents should be released. Before police records are released to the public, the department screens the documents for potentially sensitive information. Sturino conceded that he doesn’t always scrutinize those recommendations, but said he has vigorously questioned department leaders on the reasons for withholding various reports, and in large part has been satisfied.
Investigators sometimes attempt to flip a suspect into becoming an informant, he said.
“There are some other exceptions; juvenile reports, domestic disturbance reports,” Sturino said. Cases of financial theft are often withheld from the public as well, Sturino said, in an effort to protect the identity of the victim.
As evidenced by the Feb. 16 report in which officers responded to a domestic dispute, Craven said municipalities have the option of redacting specific information that may be sensitive while still releasing the bulk of the material.
Asked whether there was a deliberate effort to hide the department’s use of stun guns, Sturino said he knew of no such undertaking.
Police Chief James Ryan did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. The department’s sergeant in charge of training and in-house reviews on the use of stun guns, Sgt. Eric Bell, was unavailable for comment due to an injury.
Upon hearing that only one of the last 20 incident reports involving the use of a Taser had been released to the public in the last six months, Sturino said he will discuss the issue with the police department.
“I’ll take a look at it,” Sturino said. “We’re always in the business of fine tuning our operation.”
Though the use of Tasers by Forest Park officers has increased, not everyone in the department is using the device. Of the more than 30 officers in the department, three are responsible for 77 percent of the Taser deployments in the last eight months.
Locally or nationally, there is no agency responsible for reviewing the use of stun guns in law enforcement, and the training methods used to ensure the proper use of Tasers were developed in part by the manufacturer. Civil liberties groups across the U.S. have called for greater scrutiny on their use and the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating some 30 deaths purported to be linked to the use of stun guns.