Taser report: Tool could save Berkeley millions, decrease use of force, but oversight and training would be key

The Berkeley Police Association, the union for the rank and file, has been making the case for officers to have Tasers. Photo: Creative Commons

With the Berkeley City Council about to request a report on Tasers, a 2011 study on the subject has surfaced. Photo: Creative Commons

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

Click the thumbnail to view the report.

Click the thumbnail to view the full 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 being 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.

Injuries to officers and suspects reportedly decline when departments have Tasers. Image: The Baird report

Injuries to officers and suspects reportedly decline when departments have Tasers. Image: The Baird report

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.

Related:
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.

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  • guest

    WHY ARE WE STILL DISCUSSING THIS?

    All indicators show that a majority of residents support it. The police support it. The council seems to support it. Why are we being held up by the 1% of Berkeley residents who are members of anti-police groups like Copwatch?

  • berkeleyan

    The ACLU and Amnesty international are opposed to Tasers. Don’t you think that bears some consideration?

  • guest

    No, I don’t. Generally speaking those are both good groups but they are dead wrong on this issue.

  • joeguest

    I believe if you read the report, the author addresses these issues. Like anything, when well-regulated, and that is the key, they are merely an additional tool with pros and cons and the ability for an officer to misuse it. Because officers misuse pepper spray or less lethal munitions or firearms, doesn’t mean you have to take away that tool.

  • Against Tasers!

    As a Longtime Berkeley resident I wonder where folks are getting info that the public supports tasers! I am adamently opposed. They dispropotionately cause death and injury to the mentally ill and those on drigs or medications. These are the exact folks police are most likely to use them on. They hae been shown to be used repeatedly and inappropriately regardless of training. They are a torture implement not a police tool. No Tasers for BPD!

  • Berk. Residents Against Tasers

    Your figures are rediculous and insulting. Many members of the community here in Berkeley oppose Tasers! Why do you think you represent the majority? Are you the same folks who supports a sit lie law that failed in Berkeley? I thought so.

  • batardo

    We’re discussing it because a significant # of people don’t share your point of view. I don’t know what your “indicators” are, other than your caps lock button.

  • batardo

    Kudos to BS for prying this report out of their hands. Not sure why it wasn’t shared, except Meehan’s career was on life support at the time.

    Couple key issues raised:

    “just one shock
    at a time, rather than multiple or prolonged shocks”

    “not to
    use the weapon against passive resistance”

    “should be used as a weapon of need, not a tool of convenience.”

    Yep, good luck with that.

  • guest

    Every poll of residents shows a majority favor giving BPD tasers. The copwatch cranks who show up at the council meetings represent less than 1% of Berkeley residents.

  • guest

    >We’re discussing it because a significant # of people don’t share your point of view.

    There is absolutely no evidence of this.

  • guest

    Nice lie, guest. Polls show that more than 80% of Berkeley residents support taser use.

    http://www.dailycal.org/2013/09/29/berkeley-police-association-renews-push-to-allow-officers-to-carry-tasers/

  • guest

    Do you know what else causes death and injury to the mentally ill and those on drugs? Being beaten into submission with nightsticks.

  • guest

    Similar rules apply for any other police weapon. Do you have any evidence of BPD abusing any of their current arsenal? No? Then what’s your point?

  • John Freeman

    Polls show that more than 80% of Berkeley residents support taser use.

    While you question someone else’s honesty, you have referred to a single, non-scientific survey as “polls”. You have also repeated a mistaken claim that the survey tells us something about what percentage of Berkeley residents support tasers.

    The survey in question was not a poll and did not in any way measure the popularity of giving police tasers in Berkeley.

    The vast majority of people surveyed declined to respond. The few hundred respondents were self-selected from a much larger group surveyed. The survey questions were heavily biased in favor of tasers.

    To pretend that the sample of responses was random and scientifically drawn is false. It is false to claim “80% of Berkeley residents support taser use” on the basis of the survey.

    One of the reasons I oppose tasers for Berkeley police is precisely because the BPA has promoted the survey in more or less the same fantastically and obviously deceitful manner you are, “guest”.

    I figure if the cops can’t even plead their case in an honest and open manner, then clearly we can’t trust them to set and stick to a sane taser use policy.

  • http://berkeleyhomes.com/ serkes

    How about a new unscientific survey of Berkeleyside Readers who have read this post?

    Assuming safeguards and rules are in place for police use of Tasers in Berkeley.

    Click
    ^ If you in favor of Berkeley police being equipped with Tasers
    v If your opposed to Berkeley police being equipped with Tasers

    Ira

    I wanted to avoid any hanging chad voting, so put the ^ and v in the same order they show up at the bottom of the post

  • John Freeman

    Bogus surveys are bogus surveys, even when they come from nice guys. Also, the “downbutton” vote counts don’t work, to the best of my knowledge.

  • batardo

    Ira,

    Only registered users can vote opposed, but anonymous readers can vote in the affirmative.

    Post the same question two times, with the order reversed and see if you get the same results.

  • http://berkeleyhomes.com/ serkes

    TEST 2A – IN FAVOR OF USE
    Unscientific [and Bogus (not genuine or true; fake) to at least one person] Survey of Taser Use By Berkeley Police –

    If you are IN FAVOR …

    Click ^

  • http://berkeleyhomes.com/ serkes

    TEST 2B- OPPOSED TO USE
    Unscientific [and Bogus (not genuine or true; fake) to at least one person] Survey of Taser Use By Berkeley Police –

    If you are OPPOSED

    Click ^

  • http://berkeleyhomes.com/ serkes

    So .. If you choose to vote, just vote on 2B or 2A

    I guess I can say for this bogus unscientific survey … 2B, or not 2B … that is the question.

  • John Freeman

    And yet you trust them with guns?

    I don’t say, one way or the other.

    How does that make any sense?

    Things that are different are not the same.

  • Tasersaurus

    How is your own study progressing?

  • anotherguest

    Frankly, no. The ACLU doesn’t give a damn about issues that affect ordinary citizens; they care more about ideology. Sadly, Amnesty has been heading in that direction lately, too. Neither has much credibility with me these days.

  • Shutter

    What evidence?? Jeez, Isn’t it obvious? I don’t want tasers. My wife doesn’t want tasers. My neighbor doesn’t want tasers. Quite a few of the other posters on this subject don’t want tasers. And we’re pretty much all…well.. you know… people. Ordinary people. Does that answer your question?

    But hey, why aren’t you asking for evidence re my statement that 100% of the corporations involved in the manufacture of tasers and the asking about that? I’ll tell you why. YOU ALREADY KNOW THE TRUTH. This is an artificially created ‘need’ foisted on the gullible to make money for a small group of greedy fear-mongers. Make people frightened enough and they’ll let you do *anything* at all. And guess what? You’re on their bus.

  • guest

    I think $150K is the poverty line in Berkeley, so about half of them will need a raise.

  • guest

    corporations

    greed

    the drumbeat for _____

    people up in the hills

    no _____

    BINGO!!! Didn’t even need the free space.

  • guest

    Do you seriously believe this is evidence that “the people” are against tasers?

    You, your wife, your neighbor and some of the posters in Berkeleyside = “the people”?

  • notnot2

    So, 3 people out of over 115,000. That is 0.0026% of Berkeley residents.

  • guest

    No, I am not paid to be obtuse. I am just stating my opinion.

    But you seemed to be obtuse without getting paid for it, when you wrote:

    “What evidence?? Jeez, Isn’t it obvious? I don’t want tasers. My wife
    doesn’t want tasers. My neighbor doesn’t want tasers. Quite a few of the
    other posters on this subject don’t want tasers.”

    I actually responded not because I am very strongly pro-tasers but because that was such a dumb remark that I couldn’t help calling it out.

    You seem to be obtuse without getting paid again when you write:

    “So we’re some of “the people”.. and that’s damn well good enough.”

    If some of the people are against tasers (and some of the people are for tasers), you think that is good enough to ban tasers??

    Those two comments of yours are about the most obtuse comments I have seen on Berkeleyside.
    Personal attacks + dumb arguments = very obtuse.

  • guest

    Shutter is living proof that anti-taser people are clinically paranoid.

    Yes, you are right, Shutter. It is all a conspiracy against you. The police are paying people to make pro-taser comments. And they are conspiring with the taser industry against “the people.”

    Yes, it is very clear that ” ALL the taser manufacturers, their investors, their military
    counterparts, their political lackeys, their police lackeys and the
    gullible saps” support tasers.

    Yes, we have a very good reason to ban tasers because
    “Not all the people support tasers. ALL the taser industry support tasers,”

    Yes, anyone who disagrees with you lacks “respect for the people as a group.”

    Now, calm down, and I’m sure you will feel better tomorrow.