BERKELEY -- Tasers are a good alternative to police use of deadly force, save scarce city dollars from being paid in worker compensation claims and reduce suspects' lawsuits, according to the two dozen or so police officers who came to the City Council meeting May 6 to urge adding conducted electrical weapons to the Berkeley police arsenal.
About the same number of community members came to oppose the weapons. Some pointed to the danger of Tasers to people with invisible illnesses such as heart disease; others cited their frequent use on the mentally ill and people of color, and the lack of effective civilian oversight of the Berkeley Police Department.
The council was not addressing the purchase of Tasers, but considering a resolution directing the city manager to study the pros and cons of their use. The item was approved 6-3, with Councilmen Jesse Arreguin, Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson opposed.
The trade name "Taser" commonly refers to weapons manufactured by TASER International. Shaped like pistols, they fire prongs connected to metal strings that pierce the skin and deliver electric charges of up to 50,000 volts.
Berkeley is one of three Bay Area city police departments that doesn't arm its officers with Tasers. The others are San Francisco and Alameda.
Addressing the council, Berkeley Police Association President Sgt. Chris Stines said Tasers save lives when used instead of deadly force, and their use in lieu of physical force reduces officer injuries and resulting workman's compensation claims.
"In some jurisdictions the savings are in the millions of dollars," he said.
Stines said officers first try to resolve incidents verbally. "But there are situations where words fail and in which police officers are injured and citizens are being injured," he said, calling on the city manager to complete the study rapidly and bring it to the council by September.
Glenn Turner, mother of an adult schizophrenic daughter, opposes the devices and carried a sign that read "Crisis Intervention (doesn't equal) Tasers."
She said she fears possible police use of Tasers on her daughter, whose behavior necessitates periodic involuntary 72-hour incarcerations.
"I have seen wonderful policemen deal with my daughter when I have 5150'd her," she told the council, referring to the police code for involuntary mental health holds. "You have some excellent people here in this police department. What I'd rather see is more of those people trained -- don't give them Tasers; give them training, please, just for the safety of my daughter."
Turner said funds to purchase Tasers-- estimated in a study by graduate student James Baird in 2011 to be at around $181,000 for the first year and $9,000 in subsequent years -- would be better spent training additional officers in crisis intervention.
Councilman Max Anderson expressed concern about Taser use on people with specific health issues for whom it is contraindicated. It's not possible "to take a medical history of someone before we introduce 50,000 volts into their body," he said. "Even when used according to guidelines, these threats don't necessarily diminish. If someone is drunk and disorderly; if someone is suffering from a mental health crisis, the penalty shouldn't be death or even the risk of death."
TASER International itself warns against use of conducted electrical weapons in certain instances.
"CEW use on a pregnant, infirm, elderly, or low body mass index person or on a small child could increase the risk of death or serious injury," its warning says.
The warnings included cautions about secondary injury due to loss of control "due to a fall or other uncontrolled movement" and advises against using the weapon on persons in an elevated or unstable surface, such as a tree, roof, ladder, or a stair, "who could fall and suffer impact injury to the head or other area."
TASER International also warns that "Confusing a handgun with a CEW could result in death or serious injury."
Officers addressing the council underscored that the key to safe Taser use is proper guidelines for deployment.
Officer Jeff Shannon heads the Berkeley Police Crisis Intervention Team of personnel trained to de-escalate situations involving persons suffering mental health crises.
"Why does the state and the community entrust us to use firearms in the course of our duty, but not have that same trust for Tasers," he asked the council.