Berkeley officials plan to consider in early May whether to take their first deep look at whether the city’s police officers should be allowed to carry Tasers.
But it won’t exactly be the first time the issue has been studied by the city. A lengthy report — obtained via a Public Records Act request from Berkeleyside to the Berkeley Police Department — took a look in 2011 at potential costs and benefits tied to Taser use, but the report was never publicly distributed or shared with council members, and did not prompt any action within the Police Department.
According to the comprehensive report, which was completed as part of a master’s degree in public policy by a then-UC Berkeley student and former UC Berkeley police officer, the city could save millions of dollars and, potentially, save lives if the city made the investment in Tasers.
But the report also looks closely at reported risks associated with Taser use, particularly in terms of medical problems that have been linked to stun gun shocks, as well as financial liabilities.
Author James Baird wrote that the report was the “culmination of hundreds of hours of research” into the medical and legal ramifications of the use of Tasers, as well as interviews with agencies throughout the United States.
He acknowledges, also, that much of the data available about Tasers are tied in some way to their most prominent manufacturer, Taser International. As a result, he wrote that “the potential for bias” had been an issue. Baird noted that he used outside sources when they were available to corroborate information, and highlighted sources affiliated with the company in his footnotes via bold typeface.
Baird writes that, despite the potential risks linked to Tasers, the adoption of “thorough training and sound policies” can reduce them, and that their use has been shown to decrease the overall amount of force used by officers, and lead to fewer injuries for both officers and suspects, in addition to significant cost savings over time.
Origins of the report
Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats said the study initially came about when someone from UC Berkeley “reached out seeking ideas” about possible public policy research topics, “and the use of Tasers was one of the suggested projects.” (She did not identify an exact source.)
Coats said via email that the Berkeley Police Department paid author Baird $6,500 to help cover his expenses while he worked on his project.
After the report was completed, in July 2011, it was reviewed by the department, but no subsequent action was taken.
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said via email Wednesday that, depending how the council votes in early May — when an agenda item regarding the study of Taser usage in Berkeley that was submitted by council members Laurie Capitelli, Darryl Moore and Gordon Wozniak is set to be considered — the report could be reviewed again “as part of the process of drafting up information for the Council.”
Taser push draws vocal critics
The Berkeley Police Association, the union that represents the local rank-and-file, has been publicly pushing for Tasers since last year. The union says Berkeley is one of just three “inner Bay Area” law enforcement agencies that does not allow police officers to carry Tasers.
But despite their widespread use, critics of Tasers remain vocal, and express a range of concerns. According to Amnesty International’s 2013 annual report, 540 people have died since 2001 “after bring struck by police Tasers.” The organization says Tasers were “listed as a cause or contributory factor in more than 60 of those deaths.”
The Amnesty report also cites a May 2012 paper by the American Heart Association that looked at eight autopsy reports, medical records and police data and found that Tasers “can cause cardiac arrest and death.” (A representative from Taser International criticized the study, according to media reports, and said the sample was too small to draw any broad conclusions from it.)
According to Baird’s report, Taser use has been shown to cause ventricular fibrillation in swine, but only with prolonged exposure and strategic placement of probes; proper training can help officers avoid both, he said. In addition, excited delirium and cardiac-related issues are among the most common medical problems associated with Tasers. But he also cites a 2005 report from the National Institute of Justice that reported “no conclusive medical evidence” that there is a “high risk of injury or death” from devices like Tasers.
Local advocates from Berkeley Copwatch have come out publicly against Tasers, saying police already have pepper spray as an alternative to their firearms. They note that it’s impossible for officers to tell if there are underlying medical conditions before a Taser is used, which could lead to dangerous situations or death. And they have argued that Taser use can lead to increased brutality toward the mentally ill and disabled. They also believe Tasers are disproportionately used on minorities.
The Taser-manufacturing industry itself has also been criticized by advocates. A 2005 report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California dinged Taser International for “controversial marketing practices” and a lack of transparency about deaths involving Taser use. The ACLU found the lack of standard protocols about the weapon to be a problem as well: “A close review of thousands of pages of policy and training materials used by departments reveals that, despite the growing number of deaths, increasing concern from medical and other experts about Taser safety, and extensive media coverage of problems associated with Taser use, the weapon remains largely unregulated.”
Taser report: Proper policies and training would be critical, but city would benefit overall
Baird wrote in his 2011 report for the Berkeley Police Department that, though the risk of death from stun gun use “does exist, available evidence suggests that it is low and is mitigated by sound policies and proper training.” He points to standards issued in 2011 from the Police Executive Research Forum as an authoritative guide.
Among that guide’s recommendations: for officers to use just one shock at a time, rather than multiple or prolonged shocks; for police not to use the weapon against “passive resistance”; that a follow-up medical evaluation be conducted “as soon as possible”; that training be provided to increase understanding by officers about the risk of death associated with Tasers; and, perhaps most broadly, that stun guns “should be used as a weapon of need, not a tool of convenience.”
In the study, Baird examined a range of aspects related to the use of Tasers, from their physiological effects and their place on what’s known as the “continuum of force,” to their effectiveness, associated medical risks and possible consequences of their use.
He notes that Tasers are most often used in lieu of batons, or direct physical contact such as punches or kicks. In 2011, the International Association of Chiefs of Police released a model Taser policy describing Tasers as a potential option when a suspect uses force, is violent or potentially violent, is physically resisting, tries to flee, or is exhibiting self-destructive behavior.
Baird also conducted a cost-benefit analysis and found that, by his calculations — which are described thoroughly in the report — Berkeley could potentially save an estimated $2.3 million over 10 years, primarily due to a reduction in officer injuries.
He wrote about the existence of numerous studies that have found “significant reductions” in officer and suspect injuries, including a 2009 report by the Police Executive Research Forum and a 2010 Department of Justice study, which found a 60% reduction in the likelihood of a suspect being injured when a stun gun was used. That study looked at 24,000 use-of-force cases across 12 agencies.
Baird did his own research and analysis to try to determine the risk of lawsuits posed by the use of Tasers by comparing Berkeley to three cities — Fairfield, Daly City and Ann Arbor, Michigan — that have similarities to Berkeley. He concluded that the risk of lawsuits was low, and that, in cases where payouts were made, they were comparable to other types of use-of-force-related lawsuits.
According to Baird’s calculations, it would cost approximately $269,000 over a period of 10 years to purchase and maintain the weapons and train officers in their use.
Council to address Taser study proposal in early May
On May 6, the Berkeley City Council is set to approve on consent a proposal by council members Laurie Capitelli, Darryl Moore and Gordon Wozniak to request a report from the city manager “regarding the history, potential benefits, impacts and possible unintended consequences of allowing Berkeley police to carry and use tasers.”
Officials have asked that the report include information about the “best practices” and protocols related to Taser use in other jurisdictions, an analysis of changes in the technology, and the feasibility of doing a pilot program. They also request consultation with the Police Review Commission. Read more about that proposal here.
The issue of whether local police should have Tasers came up recently in Berkeley after an officer was attacked when he attempted to speak with a suspect in a reported arson case. The officer was knocked unconscious and reportedly received “ghastly injuries”; the suspect in that case has been charged with attempted murder.
And, last weekend, another officer was injured during a physical fight with a suspect. Saturday evening, a Berkeley Police officer tried to stop a pedestrian who had walked against the signal, according to police. The man fled, but the officer caught up with him. According to police, the man struck the officer and started to fight with other police who responded.
In that case, it took several officers to detain the man, and one officer received a broken hand during the struggle.
Officers have said they believe Tasers could have made a difference in both instances. They have also pointed to a handful of other situations since last fall where they believe Tasers could have led to better, safer outcomes for everyone involved.
Sgt. Chris Stines, who runs the Berkeley Police Association, said this week that he’s optimistic about the interest from council in investigating the issue of Tasers in Berkeley.
“From our perspective, we just want to get as much information out there so the public and decision makers have a real sense of the issues surrounding them,” he said.
Councilmen: Time is now to discuss Tasers in Berkeley (04.15.14)
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)
Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Read all about it, be part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.