Op-ed: Tasers, torture and the soul of the city

The Berkeley City Council will consider asking city staff on May 6 to prepare report on the use of Tasers.   Photo: Creative Commons
The Berkeley City Council will consider asking city staff on May 6 to prepare report on the use of Tasers. Photo: Creative Commons

Before I discuss the facts and reasons that lead me to oppose arming Berkeley Police with Tasers, I invite readers to remember a bit of Berkeley history.

This city was once nationally known for its unapologetic defense of the rights of the poor and oppressed. It cared about police abuse, racism and the treatment of people with disabilities, both physical and mental. This city was a monument to the hope we hold that education, culture and consciousness, rather than brute force and coercion, could lead us into a more enlightened way of living. And now, as if to betray all of those ideals at once, the proposal to deploy electric shock devices to police is finally at our doorstep.

It is important to understand a few basic facts about Tasers and the effort to roll them out to police agencies around the country. First of all, the number of deaths associated with Taser use is over 540 since 2001, according to an Amnesty International report. Despite being advertised as “less lethal”, these deaths demonstrate that Tasers are, most definitely, lethal. No, not all the time, but sometimes, for sure. There is a minority of people for whom Tasers are deadly. Common sense tells us that you don’t electrically shock a body that is stressed with heart disease, addiction, pregnancy, cancer or other serious conditions. Trouble is, you can’t tell who might have this kind of underlying condition. That’s the point, so why risk the danger of killing them by using a taser? It is very hard to justify the use of Tasers in situations that would not otherwise allow the use of lethal force. Does the punishment really fit the crime?

The Berkeley police have suggested that they believe Tasers are an alternative to lethal force. At a press conference in May 2013, Berkeley Police Sgt. Emily Murphy suggests that, “If we can save even one person’s life by deploying a Taser instead of a firearm, then city leaders have a responsibility to at least look into Tasers for our police officers.” This is wildly misleading. In reality, Tasers are not used as an alternative to a firearm in a life threatening situation. An article in April 2014 issue of The Police Chief (a professional magazine), describes a continuum of force that officers are expected to follow. The continuum says that officers are expected to use the least amount of force necessary to effect an arrest. That makes sense, but in this continuum, Tasers are NOT an alternative to a firearm. In fact, Tasers are relatively low on the continuum of force right next to batons and kicks/punches. By classifying Tasers as synonymous with a kick or a punch however, policy makers are inviting more frequent use of Tasers.

According to the article, if an officer encounters “active resistance” from a suspect, they are allowed to use Tasers. “Active resistance” is defined as when “the subject’s actions are intended to facilitate an escape or prevent an arrest. The action is not likely to cause injury.” Would vigorous questioning of a cop be considered “preventing an arrest” and, thus justify a Taser use? As someone who often asks “why?” when police are involved, and who has been bullied by some of Berkeley’s finest, I don’t want them to be authorized to inflict great pain on me or anyone else with such unrepentant ease. Tasers are a tool of convenience for officers so that they can more easily force compliance with their spontaneous directives and, more often than not, that is how they are used.

And what about the soul of Berkeley? Can we really have a clear conscience if we sanction the use of Tasers and knowingly risk peoples’ lives because we wanted to save money on worker’s compensation claims? The argument has been made that the city can save around $230,000 each year in reduced worker’s compensation claims by police who are supposedly injured on the job during some confrontation with a suspect. However, it is twisted logic to say it is worth it to Taser people and risk their deaths, grave injuries and city exposure to liability for the sake of saving money on worker’s compensation claims for injured police officers. And what does it benefit us if we save a few hundred thousand dollars and lose the very soul and reputation of our city?

It is also very relevant to ask whether we really even believe that Tasers will reduce or put an end to officer injuries? An exhaustive study, “Relation of Taser (Electrical Stun Gun) Deployment to Increase in In-Custody Sudden Deaths” was reported in the American Journal of Cardiology (April 2009). This study looked at Taser use over a 10-year period, including the five years before Tasers were employed and the five years after. The study looked at statistics from over 80 police and sheriff’s departments in California and some disturbing trends were identified.

Researchers noticed noticed a huge increase in sudden deaths in the first year of taser use. After that, the rate goes down, but not to what it was in the time prior to the implementation of Tasers. Secondly, they found that the number of serious officer injuries DID NOT decrease.

“In conclusion, although considered by some to be a safer alternative to firearms, Taser deployment was associated with a substantial increase in in-custody sudden deaths in the early deployment period, with no decrease in firearm deaths or serious officer injuries.”(pg. 880)

Then, of course, there is the issue of who these weapons would be used on. It is well established that putting lethal weapons in the hands of imperfect persons, conditioned by society to stereotype people of color, means that they will be used in a racially discriminatory manner.  In addition, giving officers permission to use them purely for purposes of control and as a tool of convenience means that more people will die for no reason. Last year during what should have been a routine mental health call, Kayla Moore was violently restrained by six Berkeley police officers and subsequently died. Arming police with Tasers is likely to greatly increase the deaths of people of color, the homeless, and the mentally ill at the hands of the Berkeley police.

We ask the City Council rather than investigating how we can implement a program of electric shock, we first study how this city can attend to mental health emergencies in a more humane way. Let the City Council study the NAACP recommendations made many months ago that were a call for action to improve the quality of life for African Americans in Berkeley. The time and money would be better spent attending to the needs of homeless residents of our city. There is much to be done, and those who are spending their time prioritizing Tasers and institutionalized brutality over the real needs of Berkeley, would do well to survey what is left of their hearts and their humanity.

Councilmembers Capitelli, Wozniak and Moore, please withdraw your motion and commit yourselves to working on how we can improve real public safety for all Berkeleyans and still maintain our dignity in this time of need. It is our hope that Berkeley will follow the example set by the City of San Francisco on this and vote against police use of Tasers this May 6 at the City Council meeting.

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Andrea Prichett is a founding member of Berkeley Copwatch, a 30-year resident of Berkeley and a teacher at Willard Middle School.