The Stanford Criminal Justice Center presented a report during a special Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday that could help the council decide whether to allow Berkeley police officers to carry and use electronic control weapons, or ECWs, such as Tasers.
The Berkeley Police Association, a labor organization representing members of Berkeley Police Department, has requested for several years that Berkeley police officers be armed with ECWs. The council engaged the Stanford Criminal Justice Center in 2014 to conduct a report on the risks and benefits of ECWs.
According to Andrew Greenwood, captain of the Berkeley Police Department and member of the Berkeley Police Association, Tasers can allow officers to more safely resolve situations that demand force.
But Andrea Prichett, a founding member of Berkeley Copwatch and the Coalition for a Taser Free Berkeley, said that although Tasers are often used in nonlethal situations, they can have lethal outcomes.
The study explored the possible health effects of ECWs on the body and the constitutional framework and public policy surrounding the use of force. Although the report did not come to a single conclusion, it identified issues for the council to take into consideration.
“We can only conclude that there is no clear answer, but that doesn’t mean there are no answers,” said Akiva Freidlin, an author of the report and Stanford University graduate student, at the meeting.
Jena Neuscheler, the other author of the report and a Stanford University graduate student, said at the meeting that the study found that Tasers are considered safe so long as the subject does not have specific health conditions and the shock is delivered for an appropriate duration and in an approved bodily area.
There is a risk, however, that an officer will deliver an unsafe shock, because any subject could have undiagnosed health problems.
During the meeting, City Councilmember Kriss Worthington pointed out that requiring police officers to know on whom they can and cannot safely use a Taser would ask too much of officers.
“If we were to move in this direction, we would seemingly be expecting our police officers to be MDs, to be psychiatrists and to be psychics,” Worthington said at the meeting.
Paul Kealoha-Blake, chair of the Berkeley Mental Health Commission, alleged at the meeting that Tasers are disproportionately used against the mentally ill. He also said that Tasers tend to accelerate mental health problems and often cause the subject serious bodily harm.
BPD Chief Michael Meehan believes Tasers should be implemented alongside sophisticated, well-thought-out policy and comprehensive training.
Despite the controversy over the BPD’s possible use of Tasers, Freidlin said at the meeting that the only way to reconcile the conflicting conclusions of the report is “through the kind of public debate that this community is having now.”