As the city of Berkeley ramps up efforts to study whether its police force should carry Tasers, a local coalition has planned a forum Thursday night to collect community feedback on the issue.
The Berkeley City Council voted 6-3 in May to have the city study the thorny question. Council members Max Anderson, Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín voted against the proposal from council members Laurie Capitelli, Gordon Wozniak and Darryl Moore to get a report from the city manager about Tasers, and have the city’s Police Review Commission consider the subject as well.
Many Berkeley Police officers attended the meeting in May and spoke about the need to carry Tasers, which they say would make officers and those who come into contact with them safer, and also save the city money in the long run. 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 who do not believe police should carry Tasers also shared their concerns: that 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.
The city issued a request for proposals Aug. 25 to find a consultant to look into the matter. Proposals are due Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Not Berkeley’s first Taser report
The Berkeley Police Department hired a consultant in 2011 to investigate the 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 lengthy 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. The Berkeley Police Department paid author James Baird $6,500 to help cover his expenses while he worked on the project.
Berkeleyside published the document in an exclusive report in April after obtaining it through a Public Records Act request.
The Berkeley Police Association organized around the Taser issue in 2013, sending a survey in April of that year to thousands of Berkeley residents, holding a press conference about the results of that survey in May, and continuing to raise the issue in the fall by weighing in about challenging, violent calls for service it believed would have been aided had officers had Tasers.
In April of this year, the Berkeley Police Association renewed its earlier push for the city to consider Tasers for police after an officer was attacked, and suffered serious injuries, while responding to a call in West Berkeley. The following month, council voted to pursue the new study.
What the city hopes to learn now
The city has now asked consultants for “an evaluation of the history, potential benefits, impacts and possible unintended consequences of allowing Berkeley police to carry and use Tasers, including an analysis of ‘best practices’ and protocols in other jurisdictions and changes in technologies. This analysis will inform a decision about a possible pilot program.”
The city has also asked for a cost-savings analysis related to workers compensation and early retirements from injured officers, a list of injuries to citizens or officers that might have been avoided had Tasers been available, and more.
The city plans to complete the selection process by Sept. 15, using a panel of city staff and stakeholders, and award the contract the next day. Council approval is not required because the contract is expected to cost less than $50,000. No other financial information was provided in the request for proposals.
Taser forum comes Thursday
Meanwhile, a newly formed group calling itself the Coalition for a Taser Free Berkeley has organized a forum called “Should Berkeley police use Tasers on the people of Berkeley?” Organizers for the event are listed as Andrea Prichett, who helped found Berkeley Copwatch in 1990, and Paul Kealoha Blake, who serves on the city’s volunteer Mental Health Commission.
According to event organizers, Berkeley City Council members have been invited and Berkeley Police officers “are welcome to attend this educational community conversation.”
In a prepared statement, Blake criticized the city for pursuing the new Taser analysis.
“The Council doesn’t need a new study,” he said. “The information is already out there and we hope that Council Members will take steps to educate themselves before unleashing such a powerful weapon on the community.”
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.”
Panelists at the forum are listed as Aram James, an activist and former public defender in Palo Alto; Barbara Ann White, Berkeley NAACP vice-president and a community mental health professional; James Chanin, a founding member of the Berkeley Police Review Commission and a civil rights lawyer; Jeremy Miller, the program director of the Idriss Stelley Foundation; and Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
The coalition has no listed members on its website, but Berkeley Copwatch and the Berkeley NAACP have been promoting the event online. According to the most recent Copwatch newsletter, the ACLU Berkeley/NorthEastBay chapter, Berkeley Gray Panthers, Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists and East Bay Community Law Center are among nearly 20 organizations that support the coalition.
The event will take place Thursday, Sept. 4, at 7 p.m. at 1939 Addison St. at the East Bay Media Center.
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)
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.