Taser use rising despite controversial cases

Corina Curry

The number of Tasers on Rock River Valley streets will go up soon despite the controversial recent deaths that occurred after two Rockford men were shot with the electrical crime-fighting device.

Both Loves Park and the Rockford Park District Police recently bought Taser guns and are developing policies and training before officers will be able to check out the Tasers and carry them alongside such other weapons as handguns and pepper spray.

A survey of Rock River Valley policing agencies showed that many have Tasers, from the very small — the Pecatonica Police Department with its four full-time officers — to the largest, the 300-plus-strong Rockford Police Department.

Most of the departments have added the devices to their arsenals during the past few years.

Although the numbers of Taser deployments aren’t available for the area’s largest agencies, Rockford and Winnebago County, several of the smaller departments say the devices have been used anywhere from a handful of times, three in Cherry Valley, to nearly a couple dozen times in South Beloit.

“It’s better than hand-to-hand combat,” South Beloit Police Chief Tom Fearn said. “You have less officers getting injured and less bad guys getting injured. It’s not something that’s going to kill them.”

Both of the Rockford deaths were blamed on conditions other than the electrical shock from the Tasers that struck them. One death was the result of cocaine use, the Winnebago County coroner reported, the other was a congenital heart defect.

Still, most of the departments surveyed by the Register Star on Taser use reported having no problems with health issues after deploying a Taser on a suspect.

The incidents ended peacefully, they say, with the suspects cuffed and heading to jail and the officer uninjured.

‘We’re taking it slow’

Loves Park Police purchased five Tasers at $800 apiece a couple of months ago. They’re kept in a safe in the department’s headquarters.

“We’re taking it slow,” Chief Patrick Carrigan said. “It’ll probably take us several months before we’re ready to be using them.”

Tasers are hand-held electrical devices designed to incapacitate an individual. The weapon fires a cartridge that propels two small darts as far as 25 feet. Probes attach to a person’s clothing or body, and an electrical signal is transmitted through the wires. The electrical shock causes the subject to lose neuromuscular control and the ability to move, giving the officer time to place the subject in handcuffs.

Carrigan said the department bought Tasers because its officers are dealing with an increasingly aggressive society that likes to either fight back or flee.

“What you’re left with is a lot of hand-to-hand combat,” Carrigan said. “We’ve like to try to avoid those physical confrontations. Every year, we have at least a dozen officers, out of our 34, who are injured in the line of duty. For us, with a smaller department, it’s hard to absorb the loss of even one.”

The Rockford Park District Police received the money to buy about 10 Tasers from a state grant. Like Loves Park, the Park District is in the process of developing and adopting a policy on Taser use and training.

Carrigan and Park District Police Detective Teri Johnson said the departments are working with neighboring police agencies, such as the city of Rockford, to develop policies of their own.   

‘A tragedy in the making’

That news does little to make Ali Graves feel better about law enforcement’s use of Tasers.

Graves’ cousin, Ernest DeShannon Graves, was one of the two men who died this summer after he ran from police and was shot three times with a Taser gun.

After a two-and-a-half-month investigation into Graves’ death, the Winnebago County coroner announced Graves’ official cause of death as “adverse effects of cocaine.”

“I think it’s a tragedy in the making,” Ali Graves said of the region’s move to add more Tasers.

“I think this should be the time to set aside time for a thought process about how they’re used and whether they should be used, not a time to buy more.”

But Jim Hartwig, a project manager at Schmeling Construction Co. in Rockford, said he doesn’t see a problem with Taser use or increased Taser use.

“I’m saying this after an officer up in Wisconsin pulled a Taser on me one time because my dog was loose,” Hartwig said. “I thought that was kind of silly, but it doesn’t change my opinion.

“If you have an unruly suspect, officers should be allowed to use them for the safety of the officer and the safety of the individual. I guess it’s unfortunate that our technology at this time doesn’t allow for anything safer for both parties.”

Deaths ‘not Taser-related’

According to the Winnebago County coroner’s office, the official causes of death for both Rockford men who died after being shot with Tasers were not Taser-related.

Graves died from the “adverse effects of cocaine,” the coroner reported. Kiethedric Hines, who was hit with a Taser during a separate but similar incident about a month-and-a-half after Graves’ death, died from a congenital heart defect, the coroner said.

Both incidents took place in Rockford and involved Rockford police officers.

Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson said he continues to support those officers and his department’s use of Tasers.

“I’ve said this before and I’d like to still stress that actions have consequences,” Epperson said. “No one has the right to resist arrest. I recommend that people comply with officers’ requests. If those individuals decide not to comply, they may be barred or stunned or sprayed.”

The department continues to take a closer look into incidents involving officers’ use of force and hopes to share its findings with the public in the near future. The department has a policy on using Tasers but has yet to share that policy with the public.

The department will implement an early warning system next week that will require a supervisor to be on the scene of an officer’s use of force or go to the scene afterward to immediately initiate an investigation into what happened.

“We have policies on use of force. We want to ensure our staff is compliant,” Epperson said. “This will allow us to provide more oversight and make determinations, if we can, right there if the use of force was proper. We want to address this head-on.”

Corina Curry can be reached or (815) 987-1395.

Taser use

Departments that use Tasers

* Rockford

* Winnebago County Sheriff

* Roscoe

* South Beloit

* Pecatonica

* Cherry Valley

Departments that have bought and will use Tasers

* Loves Park

* Rockford Park District

Departments that do not use Tasers

* Illinois State Police

* Boone County Sheriff

* Belvidere

* FBI agents based in Rockford

* Durand

* Rock Valley College

* Illinois Secretary of State

* Winnebago

* Rockton