Tasers for Bloomington police: Department prepares for pilot program on less lethal weapon

In a Sept. 5, 2023 news release, the Bloomington police department (BPD) announced that officers would soon be piloting the use of electronic control weapons, commonly known as tasers.

For Bloomington police officers, the tasers will be added to pepper spray and collapsible batons as options that are less lethal than a gun.

On Sept. 19, at the most recent meeting of Bloomington’s five-member board of public safety, BPD deputy chief Scott Oldham said that he does not expect the tasers to be deployed for the pilot before the start of 2024. It will take some time for an officer to be certified to train other officers in the use of tasers, and then additional time to train officers, Oldham said.

While the board of public safety was briefed on the decision to add tasers to the set of less lethal options for BPD officers, the board did not have decision making authority on deployment of tasers.

Tasers were discussed with the board at its June and July monthly meetings this year.

But the board’s feedback can be traced to a year before that, when board member Isak Asare asked Bloomington police chief Mike Diekhoff about the department’s planned pilot program.

At the board’s July 19, 2022 meeting Asare asked Diekhoff about the type of training that would be used to help police officers decide whether they’re using their taser or to use their gun. Asare said that adding a taser would add another layer of decision making out in the field.

Diekhoff responded by saying, “We have to make those decisions currently every day.” Diekhoff noted that the current less lethal options are a baton, and pepper spray. Adding a taser would be “just another less lethal option that the officers would have,” Diekhoff said.

The department’s use of force policy is spelled out in a general police order, which was updated on Sept. 12, 2023. It now includes a section on the use of tasers.

Responding to Asare’s concern about the effects of tasers on people they’re used against, Diekhoff told the board that there are several studies that have been done. Diekhoff pointed to the report delivered by President Obama’s Task Force 21st Century Policing. The report  includes recommendations for use of less-than-lethal devices: “Policies should also include, at a minimum, annual training that includes shoot/don’t shoot scenarios and the use of less than lethal technologies.”

At the July 2022 board meeting, Diekhoff said there’s “wide acceptance in the policing profession, on the use of tasers.”

Bloomington’s police department is the only law enforcement agency in Monroe County that does not already provide tasers as one of the less lethal options for handling suspects.

Responding to a question from The B Square last week, Jeff Rodgers, who is one of the police union representatives, said that issuing tasers to the Bloomington police officers would not help recruitment efforts, “because it is an industry standard in law enforcement.”

Rodgers continued, “Almost every other department in the nation already carries tasers as a part of their non-lethal equipment.” He added, “ It will be something that potential candidates will no longer be able to view as a negative—as it is now, because we don’t have that tool.”

Recruitment is a challenge for Bloomington’s police department. BPD currently has 84 sworn officers on its payroll out of 105 budgeted positions.

The use of force dataset that is available in the city’s B Clear data portal includes a column for less lethal options. That column currently covers both pepper spray and collapsible batons. There’s a separate data column for drawing a less lethal option, but not using it.

Responding to a question from The B Square, BPD captain Ryan Pedigo indicated that most of the incidents for less lethal use of force were likely pepper spray: “I am not aware of the last time that a baton was used, so I’m assuming most if not all ‘true’ responses are in reference to an officer deploying OC spray.” [OC = Oleoresin capsicum].

Pedigo indicated that the department’s intent is to create new data columns just for tasers, so that they can be tracked separately from the other less lethal options.

How often do BPD officers currently use the less lethal options that they already have?

Based on a B Square analysis of the use of force dataset, from the start of 2016 until now, there have been 2,086 total incidents where BPD officers used force of any kind.

There is just one case recorded in the dataset where an officer fired their gun, and 810 cases where an officer drew their gun, but did not fire.

In the dataset, there are 56 cases of an officer drawing pepper spray (or baton) but not using it, and another 46 cases of an officer using pepper spray (or baton).

That does not add up to 2,086 incidents, but the dataset on use of force includes other kinds of actions as a use of force, such as “physical contact.” There are 1,155 cases in the dataset where there was just physical contact—but no drawing or use of pepper spray, and no drawing or firing of a gun.

The dataset includes information about the race of suspects. The numbers in the use of force dataset show a disparity between the use of force against white suspects, compared to Black suspects—based on their representation in the general population of Monroe County.

In Monroe County the Black population is around 4 percent. Across the categories when force was used by BPD officers, the percentage of suspects who were Black ranged from around 22 percent to as high as 35 percent. That includes cases when an officer made physical contact, drew or used pepper spray, or drew a gun. [Link to shared Google Sheet with B Square breakdown of the use of force dataset.]

The disparate numbers on use of force are similar to those reported in a recent study on the population at the Monroe County jail, which was done by the Monroe County branch of the NAACP.

Asare is one of three at-large Bloomington city council Democratic Party nominees in the Nov. 7 election and will almost certainly be sworn in for  service on the city council at the start of 2024. There are no other candidates on the ballot.

Another board of public safety member who faces no opposition on the Nov. 7 ballot is Shruti Rana, who is the Democratic Party’s nominee for District 5.

The two will likely step down from their board service when they start their city council service.

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