October 25, 2007

Cornell Examines Taser Use

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In light of the tasering of a University of Florida student in September that sparked a national dialogue about campus security, free speech and the use of Tasers on college campuses, the Student Assembly is looking into how those issues apply to Cornell.
“As advocates of undergraduate students, we felt an obligation to investigate: can this happen at Cornell?” asked C.J. Slicklen ’09, executive vice president of the S.A.
“In short, the answer is no,” he said.
The Cornell University Police Department does not arm its officers with Taser guns and has no plans to purchase the devices, according to CUPD Captain Kathy Zoner.
She said there was no direct decision against Tasers on campus, but they simply have not been necessary. She would not rule out Tasers in the future, if the CUPD determined that there was a need.
“What we are currently carrying takes care of our needs at the moment,” she said.
On Sept. 17, University of Florida student Andrew Meyer was Tasered by campus police after he refused to cooperate with officials’ requests to stop his questioning of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at a public forum. The incident, which was videotaped, spread rapidly across the Internet and was picked up by many media outlets.
Earlier this week, a group of protesters met with the president of the University of Florida, seeking a temporary ban on Tasers on campus while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded in a recent report that police were “well within” police guidelines in their use of tasers, according to The Independent Florida Alligator, University of Florida’s student newspaper.
A similar incident occurred last year at a UCLA library when student Mostafa Tabatabainejad argued with officers requesting to see his student ID as part of a routine check, according to the Associated Press.
Slicklen met with CUPD Chief Curt Ostrander last Friday regarding recent taser incidents at colleges, but the purpose of the meeting was to begin “bridging the gap between undergraduate students and the Cornell police,” Slicklen said.
He said that if the need to carry tasers ever arose, Ostrander assured him such a decision would not occur “overnight” and that S.A. representatives would be present in those discussions.
“I was comforted in knowing that there is a strict process for usage of other police equipment such as night sticks, batons and pepper spray,” Slicklen added.
Aside from the legality or morality of using tasers, the University of Florida incident has also raised issues of free speech on college campuses.
Zoner said that the CUPD is charged with the responsibility of executing the University’s Campus Code of Conduct, which outlines policies for on-campus public speaking events. Title V of the Code states: “Those who oppose a speaker may make their views known, so long as they do not thereby interfere with the speaker’s ability to be heard or the right of others to listen.”
However, for instances where an individual becomes disruptive or uncooperative, the CUPD has a “multi-layered approach,” Zoner said.
“It depends on a lot of things,” Zoner said. “Who is the speaker and what is the content of the message? Are they randomly spouting threats or is there a threat against a specific person?”
At the lowest level of intervention, the event manager will make the first approach to such an individual and give him or her adequate warning to stop the behavior. If that proves unsuccessful, the CUPD may become involved and will give the person the opportunity to leave voluntarily before being removed by officers.
“Once we engage with an individual,” and the person remains uncooperative, Zoner said, “the situation moves into illegal behavior.”
At that point, police use “the least level of force necessary,” acting on a case-by-case basis to detain the individual, she said.
“Certainly there have been cases where it has taken more than a few people” to detain an individual, Zoner said.
The S.A. and CUPD will continue to work closely in the coming months, Slicklen said. “I want to provide feedback so that we don’t have a disastrous situation at Cornell.”
While CUPD does not use tasers, Cornell students may find themselves under the jurisdiction of a police force that does employ the devices. Ithaca Police Department officers, which collaborate with and participate in joint patrols with the CUPD, carry tasers.
Zoner said that since the IPD has jurisdiction over a large portion of the campus, Ithaca police officers would be legally empowered to use tasers in those areas.
No one from the Ithaca Police Department was available to comment.
Zoner said no discussions have taken place between the two departments regarding the use of tasers.