The Berkeley Police Officers Association has sent out a survey to 19,000 Berkeley residents asking them their opinion on police use of Tasers.
The BPA posed seven questions in a March 27 email survey to see whether the community considers Tasers as way to assist police and protect suspects, or the opposite.
“This is a very initial step to find out what the community sense is … and go from there,” said Sgt. Chris Stines, the president of the BPA, which represents more than 150 rank-and-file officers.
“There is the sense that some anonymous board or community group is against Tasers,” said Stines. “We are not even completely sure that is the case. … If there is gigantic opposition to it, that’s good for us to know. If there is not,” that is also good for us to know, he said.
The BPA, which purchased the 19,000 email addresses, is sending out the survey on its own, said Stines. It did not consult with or coordinate with Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan or other top police administrators. The BPA is talking to City Council members and city officials about Tasers in an attempt to see if the issue has traction, he said.
Berkeley is one of the few cities in the Bay Area that does not equip its police officers with Tasers, which are electroshock weapons that send an electrical current through someone’s body to temporarily paralyze their muscles. Many police departments use Tasers because they provide another way of subduing suspects other than physical force or gunfire. Taser advocates argue that the non-lethal weapons lead to lower gun use and fewer police officer injuries.
Critics of Tasers argue that the weapons can be lethal and that their use can lead to increased brutality to the mentally ill and disabled. They also believe Tasers are disproportionately used on minorities.
San Francisco is in the middle of a heated discussion about Taser use. Police Chief Greg Suhr wants to equip 100 members of its Conflict Resolution Team with the weapon. Many members of the police department support Suhr’s plan, although a group of African-American officers oppose it because they fear the Tasers will be misused.
The last time Tasers were actively discussed in Berkeley was five years ago after officer Rashawn Cummings shot and killed Anita Gay outside her Ward Street home on Feb. 16, 2008. Gay had been threatening family members with a kitchen knife. A police investigation into the deadly shooting concluded that Cummings had acted properly and his actions saved the lives of Gay’s two daughters. After the shooting, some Taser advocates suggested that Cummings might have been able to use a Taser to subdue Gay rather than lethal force.
The issue never got beyond discussion at the Police Review Commission, which was opposed to the use of Tasers, according to City Councilman Gordon Wozniak. The question never came before the City Council.
Wozniak has met with representatives of the BPA and is supportive of Taser use. He thinks police Tasers are an extra tool that should be available to Berkeley officers — with strict conditions on how they are deployed. The guidelines on their use would have to be spelled out, and they should not be used in any or every circumstance, he said.
“Tasers are a useful tool for the police to have,” said Wozniak. “They were overhyped initially of being completely safe, which isn’t completely true, but they are less lethal than a gun.”
Tasers now automatically record and videotape when their safety mechanisms are shut off, said Wozniak.
“I would be in favor of a discussion about it,” said Wozniak. “We should take a good look at where Tasers are now. My feeling is they are less dangerous than a gun and I would carefully consider other their use by the department but I would want some clear rules.”
City Councilman Max Anderson also met with the BPA. He told them he is opposed to Tasers because they regularly kill people. Amnesty International has reported that at least 500 people in the United States have died because of Tasers since 2001.
“There are too many people dying as a result of them,” said Anderson. “Unless you are willing to do a medical history on someone before you shoot, you are really rolling the dice with their lives.”
Anderson also thinks using Tasers will open Berkeley up to more, and more expensive, lawsuits.
“The city often has large claims against it by citizens,” he said. “Most of them are trip and fall. We are able to settle though without too much pain to the city financially. If you get a wrongful death suit, you start getting into a league you don’t want to be in.”
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