Officials agree to study Tasers for Berkeley police

Advocates for and against Tasers showed up Tuesday night to speak to the Berkeley City Council. Glenn Turner, in front, says she would rather see an investment in mental health resources. Behind her is an officer whose hand was broken during a recent physical fight with a suspect who refused to stop when the officer asked him to. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Advocates for and against Tasers showed up Tuesday night to speak to the Berkeley City Council. Glenn Turner, in front, says she would rather see an investment in mental health services. Behind her is an officer whose hand was broken during a recent physical fight with a suspect who refused to stop when the officer tried to detain him. Police have said Tasers would likely cut down on officer and suspect injuries alike. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A Berkeley City Council majority voted Tuesday night to look closely at whether local police should one day be trained and equipped to use Tasers.

About a dozen people asked city officials not to allow police to have the weapon, while approximately the same number — most of whom were Berkeley Police officers — said they were in favor of the city studying the issue.

Many officers pleaded with the city to move forward on the proposal from three council members to study the possibility of Tasers in Berkeley. Officers have said data show that departments with Tasers have seen fewer “use of force” complaints, fewer injuries to officers and suspects, and reduced costs associated with on-the-job injuries.

Community members against Tasers said police have enough weapons, that Berkeley doesn’t have enough crime to justify adding another one, and that there are too many risks associated with Taser shocks. They cited the possibility of pre-existing medical conditions that could increase health risks, as well as concerns about the disproportionate use of Tasers on minorities, the poor and people in mental health crisis.

One man, who identified himself as “JP,” told the council he’d prefer it if local officers had fewer weapons, and said most do not even need the guns they already carry to handle most calls.

“We should be talking about whether we should disarm them in most cases,” he said. “If they need back-up, fine, let people arrive with guns.”

Advocates against Tasers held signs outside the Berkeley City Council chambers before the meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Advocates against Tasers held signs outside the Berkeley City Council chambers before the meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley resident Moni Law told council members that she supports local police and knows the force is educated. But she said that doesn’t alleviate her concerns about Tasers in Berkeley.

“A college education does not somehow erase bad judgment,” she said. “Use the money for affordable housing and mental health instead.”

Andrea Pritchett. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Andrea Prichett. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Andrea Prichett, who helped found Berkeley Copwatch in 1990, told council members she is concerned that police would use Tasers against people who pose no physical threat, and said there is currently no civilian oversight of police in Berkeley due to what she described as the suspension of those activities after an alleged leak recently of confidential documents related to an in-custody death last year.

“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,” she wrote in a recent opinion piece on Berkeleyside. “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.”

Berkeley Police officers say they are among just a few agencies in the Bay Area without Tasers. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley Police officers say they are among just a few agencies in the Bay Area without Tasers. Photo: Emilie Raguso

More than 30 Berkeley Police officers attended Tuesday night’s council meeting, including an officer whose hand was broken during a physical fight recently with a suspect. Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan also attended the meeting, but did not make any public comments.

Officer Samantha Speelman told the council she had seen many incidents during her 11 years on the force where Tasers could have prevented injuries to officers and community members. And she said she didn’t believe any Berkeley officer would use the tool inappropriately or carelessly: “We are not a violent department. We are trained. We are educated. That’s why you hired us.”

Among the officers who spoke in favor of studying Tasers as a possible option for the Berkeley Police force were two men who described injuries they received in the line of duty.

Jeff Shannon. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Jeff Shannon. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Officer Jeff Shannon, whose struggle with a suspect in April set off the current push for Tasers by the Berkeley Police Association, said he’s had a persistent headache since receiving a concussion when a man he tried to speak with attacked him. He told council members that, had he had a Taser, the risk of injury would have been reduced.

Shannon is a trained clinical psychologist who heads the Berkeley Police Department’s mental health crisis education program, and works throughout the county to teach officers about the power of verbal deescalation.

“We don’t have an interest in putting our hands on people when we don’t need to,” he said. “But there are certain times when the opportunity to deescalate a very agitated person is not going to work.”

Another officer, Darren Kacalek, described permanent scars on his face and leg that occurred after a suspect attacked him during a stop. He also described a second incident, in 2005, when repeated verbal and physical-force attempts to detain a “fleeing criminal” failed. The man shot Kacalek “point blank in the chest” through his badge, bruising his heart. He then tried to shoot the officer in the head, but missed narrowly.

“The muzzle blast hit me in the top of the head,” Kacalek told the council. He said, had he had a Taser, he might have been able to stop the man and detain him before the shooting. “Now he’s in prison for life. Maybe I could have gotten him help if I’d been able to subdue him prior to the violence he chose to use against me.”

Council members listened closely to about an hour of public testimony. The item was initially scheduled for the consent calendar, but was moved to the action calendar to allow for more discussion. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Council members listened closely to about an hour of public testimony about Tasers. The item was initially scheduled for the consent calendar, but was moved to the action calendar to allow for more discussion. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Council members Laurie Capitelli, Gordon Wozniak and Darryl Moore asked in their proposal about Tasers for a report from the city manager about the issue, along with the consideration of the idea by the city’s Police Review Commission.

Councilman Max Anderson — who ultimately voted against the proposal, along with Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín — asked that the city’s community health commission consider the issue, too, which Capitelli accepted as an amendment to the original item.

Anderson said he is most concerned about the risk Tasers might pose to people with prior medical conditions, and said he’d rather see more of an investment from the city in crisis intervention training for police, rather than adding “another weapon in the arsenal.”

But he was the only council member to speak against the study of Tasers. Anderson said he fears that a bad decision involving a Taser could reduce good will toward police in the community, and that the risks would be too large even with proper guidelines in place.

Several council members balked at the request, from some members of the public who said they are opposed to Tasers, to drop the issue altogether.

“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to study it?” asked Moore. “This is a discussion this community needs to have.”

Added Councilwoman Susan Wengraf: “We’re not making any decisions about whether or not the police department should use Tasers. We just want to collect the information, look at the data and study it. And I can’t see any reason not to do that.”

Related:
Op-ed: Tasers, torture and the soul of the city (05.05.14)
Taser report: Tool could save millions, decrease use of force; oversight, training are key (04.25.14)
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)

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  • guest

    Glad to see this moving forward.

    When used properly electric shock devices are an excellent self defense tool for both police and civilians.

  • suckatash

    Mr. Moore, if you are reading this, I live in your district and I am in favor of tasers.

  • Russell Bates

    when used wrongly they can kill.

  • guest

    When used wrongly so can cars, nightsticks, fists, feet, bricks, hammers, flower pots, ropes, pillows, you name it.

    There mere fact that something *can* be abused is not sufficient reason to ban it.

  • Guest

    Copwatch has even tried to ban the use of pepper spray by the police. This isn’t about tasers, this is about Copwatch wanting to disarm the Berkeley police.

    http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Pepper-spray-ban-rejected-in-Berkeley-3092345.php

  • Death is All Around Us

    Also true of toothpicks, harmonicas, and neckties.

  • Citizens Against Tasers

    “Darren Kacalek … described a second incident, in 2005, when repeated verbal and physical-force attempts to detain a “fleeing criminal” failed. The man shot Kacalek “point blank in the chest” through his badge, bruising his heart. He then tried to shoot the officer in the head, but missed narrowly. “The muzzle blast hit me in the top of the head,” Kacalek told the council. He said, had he had a Taser, he might have been able to stop the man and detain him before the shooting.”

    What a terrific job Berkeleyside has done finding out what happened in this incident. The suspect shot him “point blank in the chest”, but if he’d had a taser he might have been able to stop and detain him??? And he was “fleeing”?? Oh that’s right – this is just parroting talking points. Would’ve been nice to see some real journalism. You know fact checking and following up on stories and all of that.

  • BerkeleyCopwatch

    Nice link you got there – would be nice if folks actually read it:
    “The issue gained even more attention recently after the death of Brian Prosser, a 39-year-old accountant, who died after being sprayed in an altercation near his Novato home.”
    “The debate over pepper spray has long been simmering in San Francisco, where burglary suspect Aaron Williams died in a police van after being sprayed in June 1994.”
    “A review by the Berkeley Police Commission found that police have used the spray 36 times since it was authorized, but records show it was effective in just seven cases.”

  • BerkeleyCopwatch

    “More than 30 Berkeley Police officers attended Tuesday night’s council meeting”

    “About a dozen people asked city officials not to allow police to have
    the weapon, while approximately the same number — most of whom were
    Berkeley Police officers — said they were in favor of the city studying
    the issue.”

    It cannot be emphasized enough that the overwhelming majority of citizens at the city council meeting were AGAINST tasers and against any movement forwards on allowing BPD to obtain them. The Berkeley Police Association packed the room with their members, but in the end, they couldn’t really muster any non-police voices. The best they could do was a handful of emails they claimed they had received…

  • Tasersaurus

    It cannot be emphasized enough that most normal citizens do not come to these meetings to screech and preen. Council attendance is a very poor proxy for public sentiment.

  • Berkeley Against Tasers

    Is this a situation in which a taser saved someone from being shot?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSgafDdGw2Y

  • Berkeley Against Tasers

    And how about this situation? Did this save someone from being shot?

    Tasers are used on unarmed citizens and they’re used for compliance.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1h-_tMgZhg

  • Berkeley Against Tasers

    Officer Jeff Shannon came without any other officers and was ambushed by someone whom had been reported was attempting to light a flammable liquid. Not only does it make no sense that somehow he would’ve been able to use his taser (he wasn’t able to wield his pepper spray, gun, or baton), but had history been re-written in such a way that he was able to use it, the taser could have very easily set the suspect or both of them on fire.

    Just last year a man in England was killed after a police taser ignited a can of flammable liquid he was carrying:
    http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/apr/26/man-dies-police-taser

    In 2009 an Ohio homeless man caught fire after being tasered by the police because he had been carrying a flammable aerosol:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/6089723/Homeless-man-catches-fire-after-being-shot-with-Taser.html

  • bgal4

    It cannot be emphasized enough that the BPA did not put out a request for residents to attend since the survey was a MUCH better indicator of broad support.

  • guest

    Are BART PD and Berkeley PD the same force? Do they engage in the same training and use the same hiring practices? No? Then your comparison is baseless and your example is pointless.

  • Guest

    BART PD and Berkeley PD are very, very different forces with different records, different training, and different hiring practices.

    It’s like comparing Greenpeace and the ELF.

  • guest

    Citizens of Berkeley who care deeply about banning tasers came to the meeting on Tuesday and told the Council that they didn’t want tasers.

    …yes, all 12 of them. All 0.01% of Berkeley residents who are terrified of BPD having tasers showed up.

    So by my count that means that 99.99% of Berkeley residents don’t have a problem with BPD having tasers, and the last time I checked 99.99% is a pretty strong majority.

  • Tasersaurus

    Selection bias, they name is Berkeley.

  • David D.

    I presume you are against cars and kitchen knives too, right? Both kill far more people than tasers do!

  • John Freeman

    Some people argue that, compared to fists and clubs, an officer is less like to significantly injure himself or others using a taser.

    Fear of injury is an inhibiting factor that can cause an officer to avoid using force at all. Why take the risk of a fight if maybe waiting out someone might still work? Why take the risk of a direct assault if the opportunity may yet present itself to restrain a person without needing to use much force at all?

    Tasers, like pepperspray, lower that inhibition. What’s the harm in a little cattle prodding, if it saves some time?

    The harm arises when that inhibition is lowered so far that the weapon becomes a tool of callousness and harassment and when it is used to cause needless trauma, especially to psychologically vulnerable people.

    That is the point some people are trying to make posting videos.

    The idea of keeping everyone safer from the worst injuries is admirable (if indeed we agree that tasers in fact do this). The reality of using force where none is truly needed, using force as a mere convenience to officers, that is where one big problem lies.

  • guest

    But…? what if…? Why don’t I second guess and armchair policeman and pretend that counts as a real argument?

    Thanks for telling us what other posters are thinking, though. How very helpful of you.

  • guest5

    Except the Berkeley PD don’t walk up to you on the sidewalk and ask if you have a minute to fight crime.

  • Russell Bates

    you are right.i should have said will be abused.

  • BerkeleyCommonSense

    Your prejudice is showing…

  • BerkeleyCommonSense

    So it’s better for the Officer to physically restrain him? Risk hurting himself and the drunk?