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.”

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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  • John Freeman

    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.

    Yeah, that’s not at all batshit insane. Nope.

  • bgal4

    Again, why are council members asking the CM for a report when the city already funded and received a report by industry experts, it is my understanding that report was done a few years ago, was I given false information of is this yet another report the city fails to make publicly available. When I asked the chief at the latest BSNC meeting no body corrected me.

  • Tasersaurus

    That sounds like something for which we’ll need to conduct empirical studies. You seem to have a lot of time, so how about adding this to your inquiry into the effects of self-tasering?

  • Bill N

    Perhaps Capitelli misspoke? Because if he didn’t this is a comment that will not advance his desire for Tasers. What does he think will happen in a “significant natural disaster” that would be handled by a few Tasers?

  • bgal4

    review the history of crime patterns when law and order break down post disaster.

  • Shutter

    The ‘official’ report of the incident at Aquatic Park has been groomed and tailored to suit the argument for tasers. The initial, factual report stated the officer was jumped by the assailant without warning, knocked to the ground instantly and punched repeatedly until losing consciousness. At no time was there time to deploy a taser — for whatever reason.

    Now, with history revised, the call for tasers has been brought up once again. The official report will have people nodding their heads in agreement for deployment of tasers. Others will raise this incident as clear justification for increased firepower for our poor underarmed cops.

    But at the end of the day, when these things are actually used, they’re almost always used for coercion, to compel compliance with a police directive and not used for the safety or prevention from self-harm of a citizen. Tasers are just one more weapon really. Part of ‘force escalation’.

    In other words, they’ll be used *against* us. Riot control. Crowd control. Intimidation. Coercion. And sometimes, as seen all across the US, just for the hell of it, to watch some poor sap squirm as he’s screaming and rolling around on the ground while cops are standing around zapping him and laughing.

    I say no to tasers.

  • John Freeman

    I dunno, if you see a fellow dancing around on a roof and playing with flammable liquids what else ought you to do but taze him? You know, for safety.

  • Berkeleynative

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

    So if he doesn’t support taser use, why is he bringing the issue up. Seems like a cop out to me. He wants to enable it to happen but wants to be able down the road to say hes against it if its politically unpopular. If hes really against it why did he bring the issue forward. He can’t do his own independent research and form an opinion.

  • Shaky

    Remember watching a Safeway being looted here in the East Bay after the ’89 quake. On TV they had pictures of folks crawling up into the Cypress structure to loot the crushed cars. If we get the “big one” tasers aren’t going to be nearly enough.

  • Bill N

    A Taser is used once and has to be re-loaded unless there are a lot of cops, which Berkeley doesn’t have, the Taser is pretty useless in an (I assume) riot in a “significant natural disaster”. In the circumstance that just occurred yeah, they work as intended but I doubt they’re used in a mass crowd or even multiple miscreant or rioter situation.

  • guest

    That is why we have city staff and commissions. A councilmember cannot single-handedly do all the research on all the controversial issues that come before the city.

  • They have Tasers specifically designed for crowd control during riots.

  • guest

    Shotguns and Blue Meanies

  • Mom

    Why do you still use that old outdated sexist term “councilman”?

  • guest

    If he followed your advice, he would get a barrage of criticism for acting without getting public input first.

    People who are against tasers will look for any excuse to criticize. Now, you are criticizing him for not taking a position single-handedly. But if he did take a position single-handedly, you would be criticizing him for not getting public input.

  • guest

    srsly? what did cops do before there were Tasers?

  • batard

    People who are against tasers have legitimate, articulate arguments that are supported by evidence. You should try to win the argument on the merits of your own position instead of trivializing your opponents.

  • guest

    If they have serious arguments against tasers, they should make those arguments. They should not waste our time attacking councilmembers because they ask for staff input and public input before they make a controversial decision.

  • Culper Agent 355

    I believe use of tasers is preferable to bullets. There are so many mentally ill people in our city that need help, but are aggressive and/or delusional. It is hard to reason with people hearing voices. Better a taser than a bullet. Obviously, talking is the best first choice.

  • Culper Agent 355

    Council-members are not allowed to take public positions on matters that may come before them in a vote later. They are required to “keep and open mind” until all voices, including those at public hearings, can be heard. Just so you know.

  • Culper Agent 355

    Many municipalities use tasers, and have for many years, without this reactionary response. Of course, weapons can be mis-used. Mainly, guns can be mis-used. It’s just that those shot usually don’t live to describe what really happened from their viewpoint. Aggressive and abusive police need to be reported, we saw this in the Occupy movement, and many cities paid out to victims of brutality, including Oakland and UC Davis, CA. That shows people are concerned and responding appropriately. Considering the lives it may save, in instances of potential one on one violence, better a taser than a bullet.

  • John Freeman

    Council-members are not allowed to take public positions on matters that may come before them in a vote later.

    No so.

    I think maybe you are confusing “public comment” with “public hearing” and also confusing council votes in general with council votes that are specifically quasi-juridical.

    For example, a council member must not take a public position on the outcome of a zoning appeal until the sides are heard from, just as a judge must not publicly take a side in a civil lawsuit before hearing the case.

    On the other hand a council member certainly may take a public position on a potential ordinance or ordinary resolution.

  • batardo

    That argument is disingenuous.

    Tasers vs. bullets is a false choice, except in a fraction of the cases where deadly force is actually justified. The concern is Taser vs. talking to people, or Taser vs. patience, or Taser vs. any preferable solution that’s harder.

    Walking into situations with a shock weapon drawn is significant escalation of force, and what is inherent to the proposal is codifying that as a standard protocol.

  • batardo

    Responding to community objections over Tasers by not allowing them is also an appropriate and rational response. Many communities don’t have the public discourse that we do, and are suffering at the hands of the abuses you mention. Fortunately our community is better than that.

  • guest

    You can fire the high voltage discharge w/o expending the cartridge. Of course once the darts are shot it’s spent, as you say.

  • George Beier

    I agree with you. Sometimes talking isn’t enough. And a gun is too much. Tasers make sense to me.

  • Berkeley Copwatch

    Tasers Are No Magic Bullet – Top 10 Reasons to Say NO to Berkeley Police with Tasers

    1. There have been at least 547 deaths related to the use of tasers by law enforcement since 2001, according to the human rights agency Amnesty International.

    2. Police already have an alternative. They can use their pepper spray

    3. Cops can’t tell if there are underlying medical conditions. Studies by the American Medical Association confirm that tasers CAN cause heart attacks.

    4. Not a substitute for critical analysis of police strategies and training.

    5. The city increases its liability exposure.

    6. Mentally ill people are 2-4 times more likely to be tasered.

    7. People of color are more likely to be tasered. African Americans are only 13.6% of the total population, yet represent 45% of the 2009-2014 taser-related deaths in America.

    8. We have a crisis of accountability for police. “Well, if a Berkeley officer acts out of line, why not just file a complaint?” you might ask. At this time, police accountability in this city (and state) is almost non-existent. Due to a California Supreme Court decision in the mid 1990’s called Copley Press vs. The City of San Diego, civilian review was severely limited, and in the city of Berkeley, it was decimated.

    9. The Berkeley Police Association has conducted a misleading, high profile campaign.

    10. If someone dies from taser exposure, the DA won’t necessarily investigate because they only investigate firearms deaths.

  • Louis Mayer

    It’s pretty interesting that the 2011 study found only 8 reported use-of-force incidents by the Berkeley police over the 10-year a period of 2000-2010 (and no lawsuits as a result). Eight? If that rate is still in effect now, it would indicate that use of a Taser use would be very unusual in any given year. If that’s true, then it both mitigates against the reasons for deploying Tasers, but also mitigates the arguments against deploying them. On the other hand, if one officer uses a Taser one time and prevents loss of life or serious injury, wouldn’t it be worth the time and money?

  • emraguso

    I’m not sure that’s accurate. Looks like there were eight claims over a five year period — is that what you meant?
    What I read was an average of 19.2 use-of-force reports per year, along with an average of 24 use-of-force complaints per year. There were also more than 20 incidents of documented injuries to officers, with substantial costs associated with those.
    For those who are interested, the full report is here:

  • Louis Mayer

    Thanks…that should have been “8 lawsuits or claims related to use of force incidents” over the 10 years of 2000-2010. I’ve edited my comment.

  • emraguso

    For this and many other style decisions, we use the primary guide for newspapers, which is the AP Stylebook:
    That suggests councilman, councilwoman and councilor as the terms of choice (though it’s “council member” when it’s not a title). Perhaps we should begin using “Councilor”… Regardless, I agree with the commenter who said it did not seem to be sexist as we do it now.