Berkeley police chief says Tasers would help his officers

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan:
Berkeley Police Chief Meehan

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan told the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday night he believes his officers should be granted the option to carry Tasers, which are not currently allowed under city policy.

It was the first time Meehan has taken a stand on the issue in a high-profile public forum, though he said he had made similar comments in the past in smaller community meetings.

More than a dozen community members told council that Tasers should not be used in Berkeley, and shared stories from around the country about what they believed were inappropriate uses of the tool by law enforcement officers in other jurisdictions.

Tuesday evening, council received a report from researchers at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center who spent six months earlier this year looking into the issue on a pro bono basis. The researchers said, after reviewing more than 100 studies, that there are still too many unanswered questions about how Tasers are used, and that Berkeley should be cautious when considering whether to equip the local police force with them.

Berkeley is among about 2,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, out of an estimated 18,000, that do not carry the tool.

Meehan told council that he knows the issue is a controversial one, but made his position on Tasers, also known as electronic control weapons or ECWs, clear.

Read past Berkeleyside coverage related to Tasers.

“The combined body of evidence and decades-­long experience leads me to believe that the availability of ECWs is in the best interests of our employees, and our community,” he said. “I would not say this if I did not think it was in the best interests of both.”

Meehan described Tasers as a “standard tool” for more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies in the country.

“I want our officers to be using the best tools available to do their jobs,” he said. “We know our community holds its police officers to the highest levels of responsibility and accountability. Successful outcomes depend greatly on a well­-trained and well­-equipped staff.”

He said there have been instances where Berkeley officers have been seriously injured “in situations where an ECW could potentially have made a difference. Our officers—your officers—want this tool not out of a desire to use force, but a desire to have a tool available that can immediately and effectively resolves a dangerous situation, and that has the proven potential to reduce injury for everyone involved.”

The Stanford researchers told council there is some indication that carrying Tasers reduces injuries to officers, but said that appeared to apply more often, in the studies they reviewed, to minor injuries rather than more serious ones.

They said researchers are divided on the question of whether Tasers reduce injuries to suspects, in part because some of the authors consider barb puncture wounds made by Tasers as injuries, and others do not.

Researcher Akiva Freidlin told council that he and co-author Jena Neuscheler had hoped to review the existing research on Taser use and Taser policy and “find a clear answer” about the risk and effectiveness of the tool. That wasn’t the case.

“There is no clear answer,” Freidlin said.

They said one of the problems is that many of the articles cite several of the same studies to bolster claims of reduced injuries and the usefulness of the tool as an alternative to lethal force. But those articles, the researchers said, suffer from a variety of methodological flaws.

Council members said they found the Stanford report somewhat frustrating due to its lack of conclusions.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli told the researchers, “I wish you’d come to a nice crisp conclusion. And I guess you did: You came to no conclusion.”

The researchers did acknowledge a broad look, by the National Institute of Justice, at the Taser issue, which involved an extensive literature review of more than 2,000 studies, and consideration of the topic by a group of medical experts.

That group determined, after considering the risks, that departments that carry Tasers “do not need to discontinue using them so long as they are using them in accordance with appropriate training and policy,” the researchers told council.

Neuscheler told council that, based on their review, there was no indication that Tasers can replace the option for lethal force by officers.

“We’re not saying it’s impossible that ECWs reduce the use of lethal force,” she said, “simply that nobody has demonstrated that conclusively yet.”

The researchers said they looked at policies around the country and found that departments place Tasers on the use of force spectrum in different places — some authorize officers to “use it sooner” in interactions, while others place it just before deadly force, said Neuscheler.

Though they did not vocalize it Tuesday night, the researchers did, in their report, advise caution — due what they described as inconclusive or weak studies rampant in the literature — as the city continues to consider the use of Tasers by Berkeley officers.

“For every conclusion, there is an asterisk—and often, an asterisk to the asterisk,” they write. “We believe this calls for caution in deploying ECWs, and that these devices should be adopted in limited circumstances, if at all.”

Council members said they found it interesting to learn that Tasers are not recommended for use on people with mental health problems, or drug or alcohol issues, and those who may be elderly or pregnant, along with other factors. Some said it would be unrealistic to expect Berkeley officers to be able to make informed decisions based on all the potential risk factors, which likely would be unknown during attempts at detention.

Said Councilman Kriss Worthington, “We would seemingly be expecting our police officers to be MDs, to be psychiatrists — and to be psychics. Because the caveats in the report say, in the real world, there are problems with using these when people are under the influence, pregnant, suffer from mental health issues or have undiagnosed health problems.”

He continued: “Why put them in that position? There are far more important things that we need to do with our money to assist in public safety issues.” He said focusing on addressing violent crime and finding money for police body cameras are among his chief concerns.

Officers from Richmond and the BART Police Department told council their officers have been using Tasers for years and found them to be a useful tool that has “the potential when used properly to reduce the likelihood of injury to officers or others.”

Members of the public took issue with that contention, saying they are concerned about recent allegations of racial bias by police in Berkeley, and that it will be the city’s most vulnerable populations who are most likely to be Tased during interactions with police.

“It’s quite clear the community doesn’t want to equip BPD with Tasers,” Copwatch organizer Marcel Jones, who is also an organizer with the UC Berkeley Black Student Union, told council. “It’s not something that’s on any community agenda.”

Michael Lee, a homeless activist who has been living in Berkeley on the streets for 30 years, said he has been trained in de-escalation techniques and is concerned about his “brothers and sisters” in the homeless community who struggle with mental health issues and may not respond appropriately to police orders.

“The Berkeley Police Department doesn’t know these people,” he said, acknowledging that even he at times struggles to get through to others in the homeless community when they are in a mental health crisis.

“It’s my greatest fear that I’m going to be the target,” he told council, and said the city would be at risk for liability if it gave Tasers to Berkeley police.

Councilwoman Linda Maio said she found the Stanford report sobering and that she believes more robust studies need to be completed to answer the questions it raises. Maio also described the Berkeley Police force as “excellent” and said it had pioneered efforts to train and equip officers with more specialized skills to deal with people in mental health crisis.

Tuesday night, council was only set to receive the report and discuss the issue. No vote was taken or expected. Council did not set a date to bring back the issue for a vote.

Berkeley council to hear Taser report Tuesday (10.05.15)
City of Berkeley solicits Taser study; anti-Taser group to hold forum Thursday night (09.03.15)
Officials agree to study Tasers for Berkeley police (05.07.14)
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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