Because of inconclusive, contradictory studies, city should not give police Tasers

CITY AFFAIRS: Implementing electronic control weapons in Berkeley Police Department would protect neither officers nor civilians.

When not even the experts can agree on the circumstances in which Tasers should be used and the precise consequences of such use, the city should not direct its resources toward buying the expensive and controversial weapons.

In a special Berkeley City Council session Tuesday, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center presented a report with ambivalent recommendations on the implementation of electronic control weapons, such as Tasers. While the Berkeley Police Association has lobbied for Tasers for its police officers for years, it has seen significant community pushback. Although no decision has been reached, given the lack of comprehensive policy advising and the contention over giving BPD new, not-always-reliable weapons, the choice seems obvious.

BPD’s argument for Tasers goes that in close-range confrontations, both officers and civilians would be safer, as officers would use Tasers rather than guns or hand force, helping to protect themselves and civilians from harm. But there are many problems that arise with this line of reasoning.

The United Nations has said that the use of Tasers can be a form of torture and that the high-voltage electroshock technology behind Tasers can cause cardiac health problems in all subjects but is especially dangerous — and even lethal — to those who have pre-existing conditions or have been using drugs. These risks would not always be known to police officers who use Tasers, which could be harmful and even escalate a situation. Here in Berkeley, this is especially relevant for those with mental health problems — including a sizable swath of the homeless population — who regularly interact with the police.

Many argue that this step, a middle ground between brute force and firearm use, would decrease the use of both. But according to the Houston Chronicle, when Tasers were implemented in Houston, the number of people killed and wounded by Houston police remained the same, while Tasers were used in relatively routine police calls, such as traffic stops, domestic and noise disturbances, and reports of suspicious activity. Additionally, in New York, a civil liberties group found that nearly 60 percent of the incidents in which Tasers were used by police did not meet the expert-recommended circumstances for use.

Both civilians and BPD would agree that their relationship is strained, especially after the questionable use of force in last December’s protests and the recent release of data that show racially disproportionate stops and searches. Buying new weapons for the department would not increase the trust between the two entities and would possibly only exacerbate its deterioration.

It’s difficult to discern whether the addition of Tasers in Berkeley would correlate with a drop in the use of more lethal weapons or would simply increase weapon use as a whole. Given the uncertainty, the city of Berkeley must err on the side of caution in order to protect both civilian lives and the department’s reputation.

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.