Last week the Berkeley Police Assocation put out a public demand for Tasers for local officers, and Berkeleyside followed up with several questions to city leaders about the issue.
Several leaders declined to comment. Others didn’t respond at all. Most of those who did reply said more research would be needed, and an in-depth conversation would need to take place before any action could be considered.
The association said Berkeley is one of just three Bay Area law enforcement agencies — out of 113 — that isn’t already armed with Tasers or considering their use.
The group said a recent suicide attempt could have been avoided if Berkeley police had Tasers, and also cited a recent officer injury that may well have been avoided too. Not having the tool decreases officer and public safety, said the association, and ends up costing the city money in worker’s comp claims and associated costs.
Several council members said the city would need to study the issue and have an in-depth public discussion on the possibility before any action could be taken.
Councilman Laurie Capitelli said he’d like to see more data about Taser use and safety before making any decisions.
“I think it’s worth talking about if we can do it in kind of a sane fashion. And I know it’s a highly charged issue,” he said. “The police have said a couple of times in the last month that Tasers would have been an appropriate tool to have. I would like to see some reasonable discussion of it. And I’m not sure we can do that.”
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she believes that Tasers can be effective tools, and added, if the city does consider it, she’d want to see continuous training about when their use is appropriate.
“Not just one time. It has to be ongoing,” she said.
But she said it might be worth discussion.
“Everything has its risks,” she said. “It can be abused and overused. Those concerns are very legit. On the other hand, we’ve got to balance the risks and the benefits.”
Councilwoman Linda Maio said a “broad community discussion” would need to take place about Taser use and protocols, “including research on all facets of their use.” She added: “Misuse is a concern.”
Councilman Kriss Worthington said he doesn’t have a firm view on the issue, as other projects have taken priority. He said there are many other public safety issues to think about, including assaults around campus.
“Having Tasers isn’t going to make us faster at responding to assaults or more effective at preventing assaults,” he said. “It’s not in my first order of magnitude of priorities.”
He said, however, that he’s “always happy to read and learn about new things,” and that he would read any information on the topic that’s submitted to his office.
Worthington said, generally speaking, items can come before the council in a range of ways. A council member can introduce an item for discussion; a commission can make an advisory recommendation to council; the city manager can place a proposal on the agenda; or the mayor or five council members can call a special meeting. He said an issue like Taser use in Berkeley could easily take six months to a year to reach a decision about.
Councilman Gordon Wozniak was the only person interviewed to take a stand on Taser use in Berkeley. He said he was dismayed to hear that local officers did not believe they had the right tool to handle a recent suicide attempt in Berkeley.
In that incident, which took place Sept. 18, police were called to the area of Roble and Tunnel roads for a man who was threatening to hurt himself, according to Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats. The man reportedly had two knives. Police responded to the area and found the man, who was indeed armed. Officers told him to drop the knives, which didn’t work. They then used a “less-than-lethal force option,” which also had no effect. The man ran from police while stabbing himself, and ultimately collapsed from his injuries. Police were able to disarm him, then administered medical care. The police association said the man nearly died as a result.
“It is very sad that an individual suffered grievous injuries because the Berkeley Police did not have the proper tool to safely disarm an armed person who was threatening suicide,” said Wozniak.
He cited a 2010 audit of the Portland Police Department, which showed that, after Tasers were introduced, use of force by Portland police decreased by 50%.
“Berkeley should join the overwhelming majority of Bay Area law enforcement agencies that allow the use of Tasers to deter or control violent individuals, when negotiations have failed,” he said.
Councilman Darryl Moore did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but he recently told the Daily Cal that “I’d rather be Tased than shot.” He too advocated for a “very clear policy on engagement of force.”
Some council members said the item would likely have to go before the Police Review Commission prior to council consideration.
Critics of Tasers argue that the weapons can be lethal and that their use can lead to increased brutality to the mentally ill and disabled. They also believe Tasers are disproportionately used on minorities.
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan declined to comment about the possibility of Tasers in Berkeley, as did city manager Christine Daniel. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates did not respond to repeated requests for comments.
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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