CHICAGO — With protests still continuing over a series of fatal police shootings, Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed Wednesday to reduce the use of deadly force by Chicago police, unveiling a plan to equip every patrol officer responding to calls with a less-lethal Taser by summer.
At a news conference, Emanuel (D) said the move, coupled with more intensive training for officers in de-escalating conflict, is a first step toward rebuilding trust between Chicago’s residents and its police force.
“This is not the end of but the beginning of a solution,” Emanuel said.
The reforms come on the heels of a police shooting this past weekend that left two people dead: Quintonio LeGrier, 19, an emotionally troubled college student on holiday break, and his 55-year-old neighbor, Bettie Jones, a mother of five. Both were black, and news of their deaths reignited the protests that have erupted throughout the city since the release last month of a video showing police shooting another black teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times in November 2014.
The video was withheld from public view for more than a year and released only under judicial order. On Wednesday, Emanuel noted that officers involved in the McDonald shooting had asked dispatchers to send someone with a Taser because none of them was equipped with one, according to recordings of their conversations with dispatchers.
“Obviously, if you have eight officers like in the Laquan McDonald incident, all calling for a Taser and none of them have it, that’s a problem,” Emanuel said.
Under the new plan, the city will add 700 additional Tasers to its arsenal, bringing the total available to Chicago police to nearly 1,500. Combined with the new training, Emanuel said the new equipment will ensure that “force can be a last option, not the first choice.”
Emanuel cautioned, however, that these reforms alone would not fix the broken relationship between the city’s residents and a police force with a long history of abusive behavior. “They are part of the toolbox; they are not the toolbox,” he said.
The reforms come amid a federal investigation by the Justice Department into the use of force by Chicago police. Emanuel said his administration studied the best practices of police departments in several other cities — including New York, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Cincinnati and Cleveland — in devising its own reform package.
Emanuel said Chicago officials deliberately chose cities that had already undergone Justice Department review, in hopes of making the kinds of changes that would eventually be ordered at the end of the investigation.
In addition to receiving better training and new equipment, Chicago police will be placed on desk duty for 30 days after a shooting to make sure they are mentally prepared to be back on the streets and to give internal investigators and the state’s attorney more time to look into the incident. Currently, officers are back on patrol in three days.
Patrol officers will also be asked to summon additional personnel during confrontations. And they will be given new tools for approaching the homeless and the mentally ill, who present particular challenges. Of nearly 1,000 people shot and killed by police nationwide this year, nearly a quarter were either suicidal or had a history of mental illness, according to a Washington Post database.
“Our goal is to change the way officers think when they approach an incident,” said acting police superintendent John Escalante, adding that he has also reissued an existing policy requiring officers trained to use a Taser to take one on patrol if one is available.
The news conference was Emanuel’s first public appearance since cutting short a family vacation to Cuba. He returned home to find activists, already outraged by his handling of the McDonald shooting, freshly enraged by the accidental shooting of Jones. Emanuel has apologized for the McDonald shooting, fired his police chief and created a task force to review police department policies.
On Tuesday, the officer who shot McDonald, Jason Van Dyke, appeared in court to enter a plea of not guilty to murder and misconduct charges.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Emanuel noted that Chicago is not the only city struggling with the issue.
“Every city is going through a change in police practice, tactics and culture,” he said.