Rahm Emanuel’s big, fat, Taser lie

On the defense.
On the defense.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In action films, when the protagonist is on the ropes, he often reaches for a new, shinier superweapon to help himself out of the jam. And so, it’s no surprise that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, facing a dismal approval rating of 18% and a serious recall effort, has grasped desperately for his own miracle solution: Tasers.

Emanuel’s woes began late last year, with the release of a dash cam video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. The video had been kept from the public for more than a year, and Van Dyke was only charged with murder after it was released, prompting accusations of a cover-up. In particular, critics argued that Emanuel had buried the video untill after he prevailed in a difficult re-election campaign.

Protestors demonstrated through December, calling for the removal of Emanuel and Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez. Matters were only made worse when, over the holidays, police responding to a domestic dispute shot and killed two people: Quintonio LeGrier, 19, who had reportedly been threatening family members with a baseball bat, and Bettie Jones, 55, a neighbor accidentally struck by police bullets at the scene.

These latest deaths follow a year marred both by high homicide rates and a number of high-profile police shootings in Chicago (though the number of people killed by police decreased overall). Emanuel has presented Tasers as a way to reduce deadly force. Police with Tasers can shock people rather than shooting them, and so de-escalate violent situations.

The logic sounds reasonable in theory. In practice, however, it’s hard to tell if Tasers reduce shootings. In fact, Chicago expanded its use of Tasers in 2010 by 300%, but there was no recorded decrease in police shootings. On the other hand, police shootings have dropped overall since 2010.

Meanwhile, data elsewhere has shown that Tasers can actually increase the rate of deadly violence. A 2009 study by Dr. Zian Tseng found that when Tasers were introduced to more than 50 California Police departments, sudden death incidents rose by 600%. A late 2015 Stanford University meta-study of the current state of research didn’t find such clear-cut evidence of harm, but also didn’t find evidence that the introduction of Tasers by police forces reduced injury or death.

“Current research does not support a decline in police shootings with a broader deployment of Tasers,” Louis Hayes, a working police officer who also trains fellow officers as part of the Chicago-based Virtus Group, tells Quartz via email. “Generally speaking, officers tend to use Tasers as an alternative to fistfights and wrestling matches, not as a substitute for deadly force.”

Much more helpful than Tasers, Hayes tells Quartz, would be training that emphasizes “strategic thinking—specifically a philosophy that values distance, protective cover, containment tactics, and a calm demeanor.”

In Chicago, Emanuel’s touting of Tasers seems especially tone-deaf and confused. In early 2014, Dominique Franklin Jr., died after Chicago police officers Tased him during a minor arrest for theft. He fell, hit his head, and never woke up.

Franklin had close ties to the activist community in Chicago, and his death was a catalyst for the creation of We Charge Genocide, an organization that presented evidence of Chicago police brutality to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2014.

Page May, one of the We Charge Genocide delegates that spoke at that UN, is passionately opposed to Emanuel’s plan. “[Dominique Franklin] was murdered by the Chicago police specifically because they arrested him, handcuffed him, and Tased him, and he died,” she tells Quartz. “They killed a person who was dearly loved by some of my best friends.” More Tasers on the streets simply means that more “black and brown people” will be Tased, she said.

May’s distrust of the Chicago police department has deep roots. The city just finished paying $5.5 million to the 57 victims of police commander Jon Burge. Burge tortured African-American men in order to elicit false confessions between 1972 and 1991. But the abuse didn’t end when Burge retired. Last year Spencer Ackerman at the Guardian reported on a so-called police black site, in Chicago’s Homan Square, where suspects were held without legal counsel, and may have been shackled and beaten. According to the Chicago Reporter, black people in Chicago are 10 times more likely to be shot by a police officer than white ones. Meanwhile, of the nearly 30,000 allegations of misconduct filed against CPD officers between March 2011 and September 2015, less than 2% resulted in any discipline.

We Charge Genocide’s report to the UN includes its own litany of criticisms regarding the inequities of policing in Chicago. Its allegations of police brutality includes the account of a 22-year-old black man who was beaten during an arrest for smoking marijuana. He got down on the ground as ordered, and woke up, he says, “with 22 stitches in my tongue, two facial fractures, bruised ribs, scrapes all over my body.” He never found out the badge numbers of the officers involved and no action was ever taken against them.

As this account suggests, police brutality in Chicago is not limited to shootings. There’s no reason, therefore, to think that giving police more Tasers will address the root of the problem. Mariam Kaba, another member of We Charge Genocide, tells Quartz that when you give police Tasers, “you just add new weapons to an already existing corrupt culture, so you just add more injury and more harm. They’re not asking for the police to give up their guns. They keep their guns and they add a new tool that can be used to harm people.“

Kaba argues that instead of more weapons for police, what Chicago needs is more resources for underserved communities.

In particular, this means more investment in mental health services, which have been severely curtailed during Emanuel’s tenure. Chicago closed 6 of its 12 mental health clinics in 2012—clinics which some mental health advocates have argued are especially important for low-income people in the city.

Kaba notes that fully funded mental health clinics could provide an alternative option during domestic violence disputes, including the one which resulted in the deaths of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones in Dec. 2015. “I don’t understand why we send people with guns to do wellness checks,” Kaba tells Quartz. “We can solve our problems in our own communities if we have the resources to do so.”

Without such resources, Tasers just become for embattled Chicago officials to maintain the status quo. Rahm thinks his new weapon may be able to save his career. But for Chicagoans, Tasers remain a poor substitute for accountability, transparency, and justice.