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.”
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 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.”
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.
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 de-escalation.
“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 de-escalate 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 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.”
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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