Walter Wallace Jr.

Mayor Kenney, City Council advance on $14 million Taser buy for Philly police

The proposed five-year contract for thousands of electronic weapons comes less than a month after Walter Wallace Jr.’s shooting.

Then-Lt. Tom McLean displays displaying new Philly police equipment in 2014

Then-Lt. Tom McLean displays displaying new Philly police equipment in 2014

Emma Lee / WHYY
maxmarin-byline

Philadelphia city officials are moving forward with a five-year, $13.8 million deal that would outfit the entire police force with Tasers.

The anticipated purchase comes less than a month after two officers, who were not equipped with the less-lethal electronic devices, shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia, igniting another wave of protests over police brutality.

Introduced in City Council on behalf of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, lawmakers advanced the procurement bill to the committee phase during a busy session Thursday. City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office said no decision has been made yet on a hearing date for public input before the bill gets put to vote.

“We’ll wait for the hearing and Council members can weigh in then on these issues,” Joe Grace, a spokesperson for Clarke, wrote in an email.

If approved, the proposed five-year contract deal with the Arizona-based Axon would cost $13,860,000 to acquire about 4,500 Tasers, according to the contractor’s quote introduced with the legislation. That price also includes more than 18,000 long-range and short-range cartridges for the electronic weapons.

The deal would provide all of the weapons to the department up front next year, but be paid over the course of the following years.

In the wake of the shooting, Wallace’s family immediately questioned why all police weren’t equipped with Tasers — a mission that has stalled for nearly a decade in the department. But some police reform advocates plan to testify against the purchase of more devices.

Devren Washington, an organizer of the Movement Alliance Project, a progressive advocacy group that focuses on the intersection of technology and criminal justice, noted that the electronic weapons are still lethal, and worried that officers would abuse them unnecessarily.

“A major issue here is police officers and their temperament,” Washington said. “If you give them a less-than-lethal device to cause harm, they’ll use it in cases that don’t actually need it, when they could have talked out the situation.”

A Reuters investigation tracked over 1,000 Taser-related deaths at the hands of law enforcement over the last two decades. Philadelphia has accounted for at least four of those fatalities since 2000, according to the news agency’s tracker.

Other advocates, attorneys and family members of people shot by police often ask why the devices aren’t deployed more. The question surfaced last year after police in Kensington shot a man wielding a box cutter who, like Wallace, suffered from mental health issues. That shooting did not prove deadly, however.

PPD: We’re expediting training process to get Tasers in the field

Officers must be trained on the devices before taking them out on street duty. Axon’s quote for the Tasers includes on-site training sessions. But properly training thousands of officers in between beat shifts requires time.

To carry a Taser in the past, officers were required to take a 40-hour crisis intervention training in addition to the eight-hour police academy training, but Outlaw has “decoupled” those two requirements in order to “expedite the process of getting tasers into the field,” said Officer Tanya Little, a police spokesperson.

“Newer officers will not need the 8-hour training, and Tasers will be issued as soon as possible for these officers,” Little said. “Those that did not receive the training in the academy will be scheduled for the 8-hour training as soon as possible, in light of social distancing regulations.”

The city’s business relationship with the Arizona-based Taser manufacturer dates back several years.

In 2017, the city approved a separate $12.5 million contract with Axon, formerly known as Taser International, to outfit the police force with body-worn cameras. The city did not open that contract up to competitive bids, WHYY reported at the time.

The PPD has been acquiring Tasers from the company on a rolling basis at $900,000 a year. After Wallace’s shooting, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said they’d need to drastically ramp up the purchase order if they wished to equip the roughly 6,500-member department, which has only 2,300 devices in its inventory right now.

The Taser procurement bill comes a week after lawmakers quietly introduced a bill seeking an additional $18 million in funding for the police department to balance its budget books from the last fiscal year.

The proposed appropriation drew ire from critics who say the department’s budget is already too bloated. Along with mid-year budget reconciliation requests from other agencies, the police budget proposal will receive a hearing on Dec. 2. That meeting will be open to public comment.

Washington, the organizer, said the Tasers are also a funding issue. He and other activists oppose giving any more resources to a department whose budget now sits north of $750 million annually — and call to reappropriate money to first responders better equipped to handle situations without use of force.

Said Washington: “The first responders need to be equipped to de-escalate without the need for a gun and without the need or Taser.”

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