The Berkeley City Council will consider a report Tuesday on Taser use and policy. Photo: Creative Commons
The Berkeley City Council will consider a report Tuesday on Taser use and policy. Photo: Creative Commons

The Berkeley City Council is set to discuss a report Tuesday evening focused on the use of Tasers by law enforcement officers, and whether that might one day be appropriate in Berkeley.

Council asked the city manager to look into the issue last year, which resulted in a pro bono agreement with the Stanford Criminal Justice Center to study it. Two Stanford authors began work on their analysis in January, and completed their report in June.

According to the staff report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting, council asked for more information about “the history, potential benefits, impacts, and possible unintended consequences of allowing Berkeley police to carry and use Tasers, and to include in the report information regarding other jurisdictions ‘best practices’ and protocols, an analysis of changes in technologies, and the feasibility of doing a pilot program.” Council also asked to hear from the Police Review and Community Health commissions.

As far as possible future action, there’s no specific recommendation in the staff report, which notes that council will determine what happens next. 

As per the staff report: “The center was not asked to make a recommendation. Their research has shown that the extent to which local jurisdictions make decisions to use electronic control weapons depends on the values and needs of the particular community.”

The authors of the report say it will be up to Berkeley residents and their elected officials to decide how to proceed on the Taser issue.

The report is divided into three parts. The first looks at the development of the technology, an analysis of how the devices work, their reliability and the health effects of Tasers.

The second part examines how and when “electronic control weapons” (ECWs), or Tasers, are used, how widely they are used, who they are used upon, related legal standards and use of force policies.

The third part of the report “assesses questions of whether ECWs replace use of lethal force, reduce injuries to officers, reduce non-lethal injuries to suspects and whether there have been study of other ways to achieve these goals.”

According to the report’s executive summary, the authors “read and analyzed approximately 150 studies on the public safety impacts of ECW adoption, the physical effects of ECWs on the human body, and the legal ramifications of ECW adoption.”

The authors said that they had been directed to look at the records of nearby jurisdictions whose officers carry Tasers, but decided not to do so to avoid drawing “misleading conclusions. Moreover, for some of the most important questions, even the most sophisticated research had yielded conflicting results.”

They write that many of the central questions related to Taser use have not yet been conclusively answered.

“We have learned that some of the most important questions do not have an answer — in some cases, because research is still ongoing; in other cases, because the answers depend on underlying values and beliefs,” they write. “We believe that identifying and explaining those questions that do not have clear answers is one of the more useful functions of this report.”

The authors note, too, that they were not able to estimate costs related to Taser use in Berkeley as far as equipment, litigation or workers’ compensation because “the answers to questions of cost in many ways depend on the answers to questions of efficacy and safety that we have focused on.”

According to the report, the technology was invented in the 1960s, and developed significantly in the 1990s. Tasers “have been broadly adopted by law enforcement agencies in the United States. Although estimates vary, approximately 12,000–15,000 law enforcement agencies [out of an estimated 18,000] equip at least some of their officers with ECWs, at least as of 2011.”

As far as the health effects of Tasers, the authors say studies related to that subject are “riddled with caveats that limit the confidence readers can place in their results.…Many important questions are still being investigated.”

The authors do note, however, that there is a general consensus that Tasers are safe for use on healthy individuals “who are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are not pregnant, and do not suffer from mental illness—so long as the individual receives only a standard five-second shock to an approved area of the body.”

As for the effectiveness of Tasers, the authors say there is “little evidence” to show that they replace or reduce the use of lethal force by police with firearms. They say there is “strong support” that injuries to officers are reduced when they carry Tasers, but note that the available evidence is limited.

The authors write that, though Taser-related studies may show benefits associated with their use, the benefits are often, in their opinion, “easily overstated.” They write that vulnerable populations may be more likely to be the recipients of Taser shocks, and that the costs “or potential harms” are “not yet fully understood.”

“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.”

Berkeley Police Sgt. Christian Stines said the Berkeley Police Association — which he heads — continues to believe that Tasers would be a good tool that could be used effectively by Berkeley officers governed by a thoughtful policy. He said the association will continue to watch the issue closely.

“We want to participate in the conversation and keep the conversation going, and see what other work needs to be done to answer the questions as to what’s the best Taser policy for Berkeley,” he said.

Tuesday’s meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

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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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...