The president of the Berkeley Police Association is asking city officials to consider the use of Tasers by Berkeley officers after a violent attack on an officer Monday.
The police association, the union for the rank and file, has been asking publicly for Tasers since at least last year. According to association president Sgt. Chris Stines, 95% of California’s law enforcement agencies use Tasers, but Berkeley is not among them.
Last fall, after a man tried to stab himself to death in Berkeley, Stines said officers with Tasers would have been able to resolve that situation with less injury. Since then, Stines said this week, there have been at least four other incidents, including Monday’s attack, in which Tasers would have made a difference.
In Monday’s incident, a Berkeley police officer responded to Aquatic Park after a man was reportedly trying to set some kind of liquid on fire. The officer, who runs the department’s mental health training program, was first to the scene.
He saw the suspect and reported on the radio that he planned to detain him. But, quickly, the situation spun out of control. According to Stines, the man attacked the officer, jumping on top of him and knocking him to the ground.
The man punched the officer in the face repeatedly.
“This guy was landing a lot of direct blows,” said Stines. “He was not messing around or trying to get away. He was trying to kill the officer.”
The officer protected his face with his hands but, at some point, lost consciousness, Stines said. He came to as the man was trying to take items, including his gun, from his tool belt.
Soon afterward, the man decided, inexplicably, to run off. He jumped over a fence and into the lagoon at Aquatic Park, and was taken into custody by responding officers a short time later. The 41-year-old man, identified as both Carlos Alberto Delagarza and Juan Enriguez Ramirez in court papers, has been charged with attempted murder of a peace officer, assault on a peace officer and second-degree robbery, among other crimes. He’s being held without bail.
Stines described Monday’s incident as a “brutal unprovoked attack” that left the officer with “ghastly injuries” to his face.
“It looked like he’d been in a very extended boxing match,” Stines said. “It’s clear that all of his serious injury could have been prevented if he’d had a Taser.”
Stines noted that, despite the officer’s extensive mental health experience — he’s a trained marriage and family therapist who worked for more than 15 years in mental health and social services before joining the Berkeley Police Department — this was not an incident where diffusing the situation verbally was possible. Stines said the officer believes the department needs Tasers, as well as continued development of its mental health training program, to be effective.
“Once someone decides they’re going to kill you, there’s no more talking,” Stines said. “Is this person going to end up dead or is the officer going to end up dead, or is there some kind of intermediary tool to prevent that from happening?”
Stines said having Tasers would benefit officers — by reducing the potential for injuries on the job during physical confrontations — as well as suspects intent on doing violence, who could be brought into compliance more effectively with that tool than with others currently available to Berkeley officers.
He also said the department’s low staffing levels contributed to an unsafe situation for the officer Monday. There was no one available immediately to cover him when he responded to speak with the man at Aquatic Park, and it took time for other officers to arrive.
“We’re feeling the staffing crunch on the street every day,” said Stines. “If you don’t have staffing and you don’t have all the tools of the trade, you end up in very difficult, dangerous situations.”
(The department is currently collecting feedback from the community, through Friday, April 11, about staffing levels and existing department resources. Learn more here.)
Stines said the police association would take the opportunity this week to reach out to council members in writing to reiterate the need for Tasers in Berkeley.
“There have just been too many incidents that city government wants to ignore that have very nearly resulted in somebody’s death,” he said. “We just have to keep pointing them out.”
The officer who was attacked Monday, Jeff Shannon, advocated for the need for Tasers in a 2010 report about the department’s mental health training (CIT) program. Tasers can be particularly crucial for officers responding to people in a mental health crisis, he wrote: “More so than non-CIT officers, they interact with people at their maddest, baddest and saddest. These contacts are inherently dangerous.”
Shannon wrote that “paranoid mentally ill subjects” often carry weapons, and are more likely to ignore officer commands, which can lead to dangerous situations: “The result is a mental health consumer in crisis who has left the officer with no alternative to deadly force.”
According to Stines, 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.
Critics of Tasers argue that the weapons can be lethal and that their use can lead to increased brutality toward the mentally ill and disabled. They also believe Tasers are disproportionately used on minorities.
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said earlier this week that the department would take another look at its approach to try to avoid the recurrence of a situation like Monday’s attack.
“This was a very serious attack on one of our officers involving a dangerous subject that could easily have resulted in tragedy,” Meehan said via email. “The involved officer showed great courage, tenacity and professionalism in defending himself, and, with the assistance of other officers, getting the suspect into custody. We will be reviewing the incident to determine what tools, tactics and training could minimize the risk of this happening in the future.”
Meehan also told community members at a neighborhood watch meeting Monday night that he thought any tool that could reduce injuries to officers is “worth looking at.”
The city’s Mental Health Commission voted in February to create a three-person subcommittee to look at the possible use of Tasers in Berkeley and develop recommendations about that concept.
It’s not the first time Tasers have come up before a city panel, but it may be the most concrete step that’s been taken. In 2008, the Police Review Commission briefly discussed the topic after a fatal officer-involved shooting in Berkeley, but made no decisions. In 2011, the Police Review Commission considered the creation of a subcommittee to explore Taser use, but the idea was narrowly voted down.
Berkeley city leaders, to date, have been cautious in their remarks about the possibility of Taser use. Last fall, several leaders declined to comment on the subject at all. Most of those who did reply to a request from Berkeleyside said more research would be needed, and an in-depth conversation would need to take place before any action could be considered.
At that time, Gordon Wozniak was the only council member to take a stand: “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.”
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