The University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) has begun equipping police officers, who previously had been armed only with firearms, with Tasers.
“As part of our commitment to maintaining safety, in the coming days UCPD will begin to equip officers with Tasers, with restrictive policies governing any potential use,” Eric Heath, associate vice president for safety and security, wrote in an e-mail to members of the University last week describing security updates.
On-duty officers who undergo proper training can “carry one primary pistol that shall be Department issued,” according to the department’s firearm policy, which went into effect last September. Among the officers, only sergeants and field training officers who train junior officers will be additionally equipped with Tasers.
A Taser is a gun-shaped device that fires metal barbs with electric currents, designed as a non-lethal method of subduing people, although the device has caused or contributed to deaths in some cases. In its new policy of the use of force by officers, UCPD categorizes Tasers as a “less-lethal” weapon compared to a firearm.
In a recently-posted FAQ, the UCPD cites documents from the U.S. Department of Justice that say using these types of devices lessens both suspect and officer injuries. But Taser use has been under academic scrutiny before; for example, a study released in 2018 by University of Chicago professors found that Taser adoption didn’t reduce firearm use by officers within the Chicago Police Department.
According to earlier reporting by The Maroon, Heath had previously discouraged the use of Tasers. The Maroon reported that in 2018, then-president of Student Government Calvin Cottrell said that in a private conversation with Heath, Heath said that because Tasers are non-lethal, they tend to be used in situations when not absolutely necessary.
Heath contested Cottrell’s account over e-mail Tuesday, saying he had never discouraged the use of Tasers.
“When I spoke to Mr. Cottrell during a private conversation, I was specifically referring to the general context of University Policing and the belief that some universities held, some ten years ago, that Tasers would be misused by their respective officers. What I specifically said to Mr. Cottrell was that if UCPD did adopt Tasers in the future, we would do so with restrictive policies ensuring proper use of the devices,” Heath said.
The UCPD’s new policies surrounding Tasers include a required eight hours of training for each officer being equipped with a Taser, the use of only department-issued Tasers, and the rule that Tasers not be used on “young children, pregnant women, the elderly/frail or persons in control of a motor vehicle in motion.” The policies are found on both the FAQ and procedures document pages on the UCPD’s website.
The policies also outline procedures on keeping records of Taser usage and reporting injuries caused by Tasers to supervisors. They say officers should not use Tasers when in risky situations or when facing a firearm “unless circumstances permit such use.”
Heath in last week’s e-mail to the University community said “multiple college and university law departments” have also equipped officers with Tasers, saying that members of the University’s security team “have learned from their experiences, particularly the development of policies designed to increase safety while minimizing risk.”
Heath noted in the email that the Chicago Police Department, which is the primary police department patrolling UCPD’s extended patrol area, uses Tasers.
Other university law enforcement agencies have adopted Tasers in recent years. The University of Michigan Police Department deployed them in July 2018. Georgia Tech’s police department began using Tasers after the fatal shooting of a student by police in 2017.
The University’s adoption of Tasers comes as UCPD faces increased scrutiny for its use of firearms. Since an officer shot a student in 2018, the #CareNotCops student campaign has led protests, rallies, and town halls focused on UCPD.
The coalition running the campaign, consisting of UChicago United and Students Working Against Prisons, has condemned Taser use before. In an open letter in April 2018 released alongside a petition, the coalition and other groups called for “the immediate disarmament” of the UCPD, adding that “the availability of firearms and tasers has repeatedly led to the excessive use of violence against individuals.”
In a recent statement provided to The Maroon, the coalition said that equipping UCPD officers with Tasers “on top of the guns they already have…will only serve to exacerbate the University’s harmful presence in surrounding communities.”
“As evidenced by a history of racial profiling, any weapon in the hands of the UCPD especially endangers Black and Brown and/or neurodivergent students and community members," the coalition’s statement continues, reiterating the coalition’s goal of UCPD’s complete disarmament.