Councilmen: Time is now to discuss Tasers in Berkeley

Councilman Laurie Capitelli. March 5, 2013. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Councilman Laurie Capitelli is among three Berkeley council members who are calling for a discussion on Taser use by Berkeley Police officers. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Three Berkeley City Council members are bringing the issue of Taser use by local police to the forefront with a proposed council agenda item currently set for consideration in early May.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli has drafted an item to request a report from the city manager about the possible use of Tasers by police in Berkeley, along with consideration of the idea by the city’s Police Review Commission.

Capitelli said it was last week’s violent attack on a Berkeley Police officer at Aquatic Park that brought about the current proposal. A man has been charged with attempted murder in that case.

According to court papers, the suspect in that assault had been reportedly “doing kung fu poses” on a rooftop near Aquatic Park before trying to light something on fire. A police officer responded to the area to investigate, and the man refused to comply when the officer made contact. There was a physical struggle, and the man was able to get on top of the officer. According to police, he repeatedly tried to take the officer’s gun — and later said he intended to shoot the officer — and kicked and punched the officer numerous times before running off. He was arrested a short time later.


Berkeley Police Association president Sgt. Chris Stines said last week that a Taser might well have protected the officer in that instance. And he said Tuesday that he welcomes the proposed council review.

“We’re glad to see that there is an interest in starting a conversation on the issue of Taser use, and are looking forward to providing whatever input is asked of us,” he said.

Capitelli said the agenda item would prompt the first formal consideration of the topic by the council during his 11-year tenure as a Berkeley official, though he recalled that the issue had been discussed informally several years prior.

“I think it’s a question that needs to be revisited,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not saying we need Tasers. The question is: Do we need them, and are they appropriate?”

Council members Gordon Wozniak and Darryl Moore have signed on to co-sponsor the recommendation, which asks the city manager to research “the history, potential benefits, impacts and possible unintended consequences of allowing Berkeley police to carry and use” Tasers in Berkeley. Council members are asking for information on best practices and protocols, as well as “an analysis of changes in technologies, and the feasibility of doing a pilot program. The City Manager should also consult with the Police Review Commission.”


According to Capitelli’s proposal, Berkeley, Alameda and San Francisco are the only “inner Bay Area” law enforcement agencies that do not allow police officers to carry Tasers.

Gordon Wozniak. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Gordon Wozniak. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Since last week’s attack at Aquatic Park, Councilman Wozniak said Tuesday the city has received 50-60 emails in support of allowing Berkeley officers to carry Tasers. The police association did its own survey last year and found extensive support for the idea.

“It’s time to have a serious discussion on it and make a decision,” Wozniak said. He noted that, in Portland, use of force was actually found to decline after police were given Tasers. “You don’t want police to be forced into a binary choice between having to physically subdue violent suspects and shooting them. You want an intermediate solution. Tasers would give them a lot more range.”

Critics of Tasers argue that the weapons can be lethal and that their use can lead to increased brutality toward the mentally ill and disabled. They also believe Tasers are disproportionately used on minorities.

Wozniak said he believes that concerns about the potential danger of Tasers are exaggerated, and that part of the public process will include collecting information about what other law enforcement agencies have seen as the tool’s use has become more widespread.


Darryl Moore. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Darryl Moore. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Councilman Moore said he’s looking forward to learning about best practices related to Tasers, and that proper oversight and policies regarding their use would need to part of any ultimate decision.

“It’s critical that the Police Department develop very clear rules of engagement,” he said Tuesday. “At the end of the day, I’d rather be shot with a Taser than shot with a police officer’s revolver. I think it just gives our police officers options besides a lethal weapon. So I think we should study it.”

Part of the proposed agenda item includes a request for a public process by the Police Review Commission, though Capitelli said he did not know what form that might take.

George Perezvelez, a member of the Police Review Commission, said Tuesday he thinks Tasers may potentially be an appropriate tool for Berkeley officers, under the right conditions.

“I think that Tasers are a viable option for a police department as long as the community has significant input, and strict training and guidelines are adhered to via a very thoroughly vetted general order,” he said.

Perezvelez said a “full review” of the department’s use of force and training needs must be done before any decision is made on the subject.

The city’s Mental Health Commission is also in the process of taking a look at Tasers. And Capitelli said the Disaster Preparedness Commission is considering looking at Taser use by authorities in terms of a potential crowd control tool after a significant natural disaster.

Capitelli has submitted his item to the city clerk as a consent calendar item for the May 6 council meeting. The agenda committee is set to discuss scheduling and placement of the item Monday.

In the report back from staff, council members have asked for information on changes in Taser technology over the past decade; regulations and experiences in jurisdictions that allow Taser use; an analysis of possible cost savings related to injuries, workers’ compensation and early retirement should they be adopted; a list of serious or minor injuries to citizens or officers that might have been avoided if Tasers had been available; and a comparison between Berkeley and other local agencies regarding the rate of the usage of lethal force.

Councilman Capitelli said he hasn’t yet made a decision about whether he supports Taser use in Berkeley or not, pending the public process.

“Maybe we’ll come to the conclusion that they’re not appropriate in Berkeley,” he said. “But I would hope that we can have a civil discussion about this and come to a consensus as to whether we should go forward with something.”

Related:
Police call for Tasers after attempted killing of officer (04.10.14)
Police arrest man after ‘violent attack’ in West Berkeley (04.08.14)
Berkeley asks public for help to create new police beats (03.27.14)
Vigil, rally mark anniversary of in-custody death (02.12.14)
City leaders weigh in on idea of Tasers in Berkeley (10.03.13)
2 women charged after Berkeley stun gun robberies (09.30.13)
After suicide attempt, police union says Tasers needed (09.25.13)
Berkeley police union makes the case for Tasers (05.29.13)
Police union: Should Berkeley have Tasers? (04.02.13)

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