Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Wednesday a “major overhaul” of police training, including a requirement that every officer responding to a call be equipped with a Taser, after a series of fatal shootings by police sparked weeks of protests and complaints that Chicago officers are too quick to fire their weapons.
Emanuel and Interim Police Superintendent John Escalante also discussed changes in department policy on when officers may use physical or deadly force, with a focus on using “de-escalation tactics” to try to resolve potentially violent situations.
Emanuel said the Police Department will double the number of Tasers available to officers — from 700 to 1,400— and that the new policies are just the latest step as he works to restore public trust in the police force and his administration.
“Our police officers have a very difficult and dangerous job. They put their lives on the line so the rest of us can be safe. And like all of us, they are human and they make mistakes,” the mayor said. “Our job is to reduce the chances of mistakes.
“That requires us to give them the right guidance, the right training, and the right culture, to prevent abuses,” he said. “Willful misconduct and abuse cannot and will not be tolerated.”
Emanuel pledged training to make police encounters with citizens “less confrontational and more conversational.” He said that “force should be the last option and not the first choice.”
Interim Police Superintendent John Escalante said the city looked at 15 police departments, including New York, Seattle, Portland, Cincinnati and Cleveland as it developed its new policies.
A statement from the mayor’s office late Tuesday said the Police Department will begin to require every officer who “responds to calls for service” to be equipped with a Taser and trained to use it by June 1, 2016.
The mayor’s office had already said some changes in training would be forthcoming in the wake of the release of dashcam video last month showing white officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014. McDonald, armed with a knife, is seen veering away from Van Dyke in the video before the veteran officer starts firing.
Van Dyke, who faces six first-degree murder counts, pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday.
The release of the video set off citywide demonstrations, forced the resignation of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and has led to an ongoing wide-ranging civil rights investigation of the entire Chicago Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice. Protesters also have called for Emanuel to resign.
The mayor’s office statement did not specifically mention the McDonald shooting or another shooting over the weekend in which Chicago police killed two people: 55-year-old Bettie Jones, who police said was shot accidentally, and 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier.
In saying the number of Tasers will be doubled, Emanuel mentioned the McDonald shooting. He said numerous squad cars were responding “and they’re all calling for a Taser and none of them have one.”
“There’s a problem that has to be addressed,” he said.
Activists were skeptical Wednesday that the changes would reverse decades of problems and mistrust between Chicago residents and police.
Ted Pearson, one of the leaders of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, noted that Emanuel made leadership changes after the release of the McDonald video and gave a speech before the City Council in which he apologized, appearing at times to be near tears. Yet that didn’t stop the latest shooting.
Pearson’s organization believes the only way to bring true change is for Chicago to have a civilian police accountability council that isn’t appointed by the mayor.
“The people have no trust in the police. They have no trust in the mayor,” Pearson said. “The people in charge are continuing to give (some officers) a pass. It happens over and over and over again.”
Police said LeGrier was being “combative” before he was shot early Saturday. Both he and Jones were black.
Police have not released the race of the officer or officers involved and will not say how many officers fired their weapons or what the man and woman were doing before they were shot.
Emanuel had been vacationing with his family in Cuba when the weekend shooting occurred. His office said he cut his trip short to return to Chicago on Tuesday night.
In a statement issued over the weekend, Emanuel said he ordered Escalante and the city’s Independent Police Review Authority to review the department’s crisis-intervention team training. The program teaches officers how to respond to a person in crisis or with mental health problems, and is aimed at resolving incidents without violence.
About 1,860 officers — or roughly 15 percent of Chicago’s police force — have completed the training, according to department statistics. Advocates for the program say that number should be 25 to 35 percent.
Associated Press writers Ivan Moreno, Carla K. Johnson and Michael Tarm contributed to this report.