News Local/State

Champaign Approves Tasers For Police Department

Champaign County NAACP President Patricia Avery, addressing the Champaign City Council.

Champaign County NAACP President Patricia Avery was one of several people to address the Champaign City Council Tuesday night on its Taser proposal. Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Seven weeks after approving the concept in study session, the Champaign City Council voted 6-3 Tuesday night to allow its police department to use Tasers.

Champaign Police will buy 25 Tasers with built-in cameras and a Use of Force Policy to govern their deployment. But Taser opponents say the weapons are dangerous and prone to abuse.

Fifteen residents of Champaign and Urbana spoke against the Tasers in remarks to the city council Tuesday night, while two residents spoke in their favor. Many cited incidents in which police used Tasers improperly, or people died or suffered serious injuries after Tasers were used on them.

Patricia Avery of the Champaign County NAACP says the city’s improvements in police relations with African-Americans, since the accidental police killing of teen-ager Kiwane Carrington in 2009, could be set back by one bad Taser incident.

“If there is an incident, we will be the first ones out,” said Avery. “You will unwind and unravel all the work that is being done in this community, because you have to have another weapon.” 

As they had in September, council members voted on the Taser issue along racial lines, with “no” votes from At-Large Council members Will Kyles and Matt Gladney and District 1 member Clarissa Nickerson Fourman .

Councilman Kyles raised concerns that community feeling about Tasers was such that a Taser-related death would be devastating for the police officer involved, even in a case where the officer had acted properly.

“You have to ask yourself, if this an environment where even a good officer would survive the deployment of a Taser and an accidental death?” said Kyles. “I’m not sure. I don’t know.”

But Mayor Deb Feinen says Champaign is already, in effect, using Tasers, by calling for assistance from other police departments that have them. She says that with their own Taser program, Champaign Police can better control their use.

“Our officers, where if something does go wrong, they answer to the chief, to the city manager, ultimately to the citizens in the city of Champaign.” said Feinen. “To me, that’s very important.”

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to continue to work on community relationships,” said Feinen, “that we don’t have to have the other discussions that were raised tonight” --- referring to proposals for a citizens police review board, and more community policing techniques.

“But it does mean that our chief and our officers and our citizens need to be responsible to each other,” said Feinen.

A citizens’ police review board was called for by several Taser opponents who spoke at the City Council meeting, and also by Councilman Mike LaDue, who voted in favor of Tasers. Several cited the citizens police review board in Urbana, where police began carrying Tasers earlier this year.

Mayor Feinen would not commit to a review board. She said during a break in the council meeting that she wanted to consult with Police Chief Anthony Cobb before making a decision. Cobb, who was with the Urbana Police Department when its police citizen review board was established, says that such boards can be constructive. But he raised questions about how much independent authority they should have, and also questioned whether they can work without good police-community relations already in place.