Chicago police will get new equipment and training to defuse tense situations and limit use of lethal force, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Wednesday, following weeks of protests calling for him to resign over his handling of fatal police shootings.
The number of Tasers, or electric stun guns that are generally not lethal, will be doubled for the police department to 1,400 so that every patrol unit going out at night has one, Emanuel said.
"Just because you are trained that you can use force, doesn't mean you should," Emanuel told a news conference, flanked by other top officials including interim Police Superintendent John Escalante.
The head of the police officers' union in Chicago said the new policy did not significantly alter the way officers already deal with potentially violent situations.
Emanuel ended his Cuba vacation early this week to deal with fallout from Saturday's fatal police shooting of a 19-year-old college student, who relatives said had suffered from mental issues, and a 55-year-old grandmother.
The Chicago Police Department, already the subject of a federal civil rights investigation over its use of deadly force and other issues, has admitted the woman's death was an accident.
The latest shootings came after protesters had called for Emanuel's resignation after a video was released last month showing Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is white, shooting 17-year-old African-American Laquan McDonald in 2014. Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to murder.
That and other shootings of black men by police officers across the country over the past 18 months have led to national protests and the issue has fueled a civil rights movement under the name Black Lives Matter.
Chicago police shoot more than 50 people a year, 74 percent of them black, with an average of 17 fatal shootings a year between 2007 and 2014, according to the Independent Police Review Authority, which examines complaints about the Chicago police and its use of force.
Escalante said the aim was to discourage aggression and confrontation.
"The goal is to change the way officers think when they approach a critical incident by establishing time and distance to allow for more prudent thinking and physical space to promote a safer environment," he said.
"We expect that every police officer develops skills and abilities that allow them to help dissolve confrontations by the using the least amount of physical or lethal force necessary," he said.
The city has already announced it will add more body cameras to police equipment and that officers involved in fatal shootings will be put on a mandatory 30-day period of desk duty, compared with the current three-day policy.
Most U.S. police receive little or no training on how to de-escalate crisis situations involving the mentally ill or people under the effect of drugs or alcohol, despite the growing frequency of such encounters and fatal results in a number of recent cases.
UNION HEAD SAYS NOT A MAJOR CHANGE
The chief of the union representing Chicago's rank-and-file police officers said the de-escalation policy outlined on Wednesday was not a major change from current department policy.
"This is not something officers will have to get used to doing because they do it every day," said Dean Angelo, president of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 7.
Angelo described the outfitting of squad cars with Tasers as a positive development but cautioned the devices were not a fail-safe answer to every scenario confronting police.
The Chicago Police Department, with some 12,000 officers, currently has 700 Tasers, which fire dart-like electrodes that incapacitate but are generally non-lethal.
None of the eight police officers at the scene of McDonald's shooting in 2014 had a Taser, although they had asked for a unit equipped with a Taser to come to the scene.
The turmoil after that shooting led Emanuel to fire the police superintendent and create a task force to review police accountability.
While Emanuel was on vacation, Bettie Jones, 55, and Quintonio LeGrier, 19, were killed on Dec. 26 by an officer responding to a call that LeGrier was threatening his father with a metal baseball bat, another situation that critics said police could have addressed with a Taser.
Tasers can be used at a distance of up to 35 feet (11 metres), depending on the model, and some can also be pressed onto the target's body without firing the projectiles.