Berkeley Police Association renews push to allow officers to carry tasers

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The Berkeley Police Association is once again revisiting the debate over whether tasers should be carried by city police, following an incident involving a mentally ill man on Sept. 18.

Police responded to reports that the man was stabbing himself in an attempt to commit suicide. While the attempt was unsuccessful, the man sustained injuries that police said could have been prevented had they been equipped with tasers.

This is not the first time the association, a labor organization that represents officers and sergeants, has advocated allowing Berkeley police to carry tasers. Earlier this spring, they conducted a survey, which showed that more than 80 percent of Berkeley residents supported taser use by police.

“None of us want to see a mentally ill person suffering,” said the association’s president, Sgt. Chris Stines. “A taser is not pleasant but has an extremely low likelihood of causing injury or death.”

Currently, the city of Berkeley does not allow its police force to carry tasers. Police instead are armed with batons, firearms and pepper spray, Stines said.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, whose officers are equipped with tasers, has said tools are effective as a nonlethal use of force in dangerous situations.

While community members generally support the use of the devices, Berkeley Copwatch, a local organization that seeks to hold city police accountable, has been vocal about its opposition to the idea.

“There is a tendency to use tasers as a form of punishment to people,” said Copwatch volunteer Russell Bates. “Police officers are too quick on the draw to use tasers.”

In its opposition, Berkeley Copwatch cites an Amnesty International report showing that between 2001 and 2012, there were more than 500 taser-related deaths in the United States, at least 92 of which were in California.

Bates said that communication as well as mental-health teams from the community would be far more successful in resolving delicate situations that could otherwise result in injury or death. The probability of death becomes higher if the victim is intoxicated, is on drugs or has pre-existing cardiac conditions, he said.

When the Berkeley Police Association’s survey was sent out in the spring, Berkeley City Councilmember Max Anderson expressed opposition to the use of tasers in Berkeley on these same grounds.

Any change to the police department’s taser policy would need to come before the City Council and be voted upon — although no item has yet been introduced.

Councilmembers Gordon Wozniak and Darryl Moore said they are moderately in favor of equipping police with tasers, although they stressed the need for strict regulations and a lengthy discussion before any policy change is implemented.

“I’d rather be tased than shot,” Moore said. “There needs to be very clear policy on engagement of force.”

Contact Giacomo Toginini at [email protected].