Chicago’s long time police shooting problem has finally made national news, with the horrifying video of an officer senselessly gunning down Laquan McDonald as the impetus for closer scrutiny. With the spotlight shining on it, the Chicago Police Department is doubling down with a shockingly counterproductive change that will only worsen the situation. It is increasing police officers’ access to Tasers. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel just announced that in the coming months, the Chicago Police Department will double its supply of Tasers, arming every single responding officer and every single beat car with Tasers. This increase in available weaponry will not solve the police department’s unjustified shooting problem. Quite the opposite: Tasers will only further entrench the “shoot first, ask questions later” cop mentality.
Police Tasers work by using compressed gas to fire two small darts attached to copper wires. There are two ways they can be used. In one setting, when the darts pierce the skin, an electric current hits the body, seizing up all of the muscles and sending the target writhing on the ground in searing pain. Supposedly, the idea behind Tasers used in that setting is to get suspects to submit without a fight. Presumably, the thought is that if police officers just blast suspects with Tasers, they won’t feel the need to also gun them down to subdue them. In the other setting, the Taser applies an electrical shock to a smaller area, causing intense, localized pain. This setting seems to agitate, rather than subdue, the target. The second setting has a punitive aspect to it and mostly just escalates a situation. Tasers are currently used by more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., and that number is growing.
Despite claims that Tasers are an optimal alternative to shooting suspects, sometimes the Tasers’ jolts induce cardiac arrest. Sometimes, the police fire at the target repeatedly or excessively, killing them instead of merely subduing them. In fact, the United Nations Committee Against Torture declared that Tasers are a potentially lethal form of torture.
And, the fact is that Tasers are not actually used as an alternative to shooting suspects. Instead, they are frequently used as an alternative to de-escalating situations that do not call for the use of any force at all. Sure, in theory it would be better to Taser someone in a high-risk situation than to shoot him, but that’s just not how Tasers are being used. Tasers are instead the go-to weapon of submission, allowing police an alternative to peacefully dealing with people with mental illness or escalating police violence in situations like routine traffic stops. For example, during a parking dispute Chicago police officers Tasered Tiffany Rent, who was 8 months pregnant, because she ripped up a parking ticket they had issued. Memorably, the state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland in Texas threatened her with a Taser, saying, “I will light you up,” for refusing to put out her cigarette. A Miami study, found that police frequently used Tasers as a form of punishment for homeless people, truant children, and loitering teens. Moreover, the use of Tasers is often not documented, so that police often use them indiscriminately. Youtube has countless videos of appalling excessive force used by officers firing Tasers at suspects for no apparent reason except a show of authority.
Adding more Tasers to the arsenal available to police officers is not going to stop the police violence plaguing Chicago and other cities. Instead, arming Chicago police officers with yet another weapon of submission is only going to fuel the aggressive police culture. The problem in police departments like Chicago is that officers are trained to jump right to use of force, without trying to peacefully deescalate situations. Adding more weaponry to the mix is only going to strengthen that culture.