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Tasers are No Magic Bullet

After each mishap or tragedy that occurs these days in Berkeley, we are told that it could have been averted “if only” the police had been issued tasers. The mayor of Berkeley made this claim after six Berkeley police killed a mentally ill transgender woman in her own home last year. BPD officers made the same claim again when a mentally ill man stabbed himself several times. This week, Chris Stines of the Berkeley Police Association (BPA) went to great pains to spread the notion that if a Berkeley police officer had had a taser this past week, he wouldn’t have been assaulted. It is regrettable that the BPA uses these incidents as nothing more than a way to win political points. The issue of how to protect officers as well as the human rights of the citizenry is far more complex than simply giving cops more hardware on their belts.

Of course, these kinds of statements can never be proven. No one can know whether a taser would have prevented the confrontation in which the officer was involved in a fistfight with a suspect who was believed to be mentally ill. The BPA continues to apply steady political pressure to our local politicians and insists that somehow, real safety resides in our ability to meet suspects with electric shocks. At Berkeley Copwatch, we disagree. We believe that it is the duty of the officers to place the well being of the community at the forefront of their efforts. We believe that mentally ill people have a right to treatment and should not be subjected to torture because of a condition which they do not control. It is time for the City of Berkeley to return to the humane approaches for which it was once famous and reject the militarization of care which has overtaken our approach to community health and safety.

Top Ten Reasons to say NO to Tasers

1. Tasers are a “sometimes lethal” weapon. There have been at least 547 deaths related to the use of tasers by law enforcement since 2001, according to the human rights agency Amnesty International. It is also reported that 90% of those who died were unarmed. TASER International, the main manufacturer of tasers, has begin issuing on its website a new warning to law enforcement, stating that its conducted electrical weapon “can cause death or serious injury.” Tasers used on most people harbor few long-term effects, but they are deadly for a small minority. Their use should be considered potentially lethal and limited to only those situations in which lethal force would have been justified.

2. Police already have an alternative. They can use their pepper spray. In 1997, the Berkeley Police made a campaign to obtain pepper spray. This they claimed was the best alternative to deadly force. If this was true, then why are we now being asked to finance yet another round of the latest torture technology? Why can’t we invest in longer term, more humane approaches to community safety? According to Chris Stines, police only needed to use their pepper spray three times last year. If so, then is it worth spending a few hundred thousand dollars to equip a department for three incidents a year?

3. Cops can’t tell if there are underlying medical conditions. Studies by the American Medical Association confirm that tasers CAN cause heart attacks. Taser International also warns that tasers should not be used on people who are pregnant, on drugs, have asthma or who have heart problems. How can officers know if there is an underlying medical condition? They can’t. That is the problem. They are playing a lethal game of chance each time they use them.

4. Not a substitute for critical analysis of police strategies and training. While we are glad that Berkeley officer Jeff Shannon is recovering from his encounter last week, we do not see how a taser would have saved him. For some unknown reason, the officer went to this call alone. It is rare that a traffic stop in Berkeley attracts less than 2-4 officers. Why did officer Shannon answer this call alone? His attacker surprised him and having a taser would not have changed that. According to press reports, the attacker was attempting to ignite a liquid. A taser blast on a flammable liquid could ignite (and has in the past) causing an even greater risk to the officer, the suspect and the public.

5. The city increases its liability exposure. TASER International knows that this is a lethal weapon. They are covering themselves legally by issuing warnings about the lethal capacity of these weapons. In one month alone in 2013, five law enforcement agencies in North Texas announced they had discontinued using Tasers or were reviewing their policy regarding the weapons. The city of San Francisco declined to adopt tasers and opted to seek a truly non-lethal alternative. Across the country, agencies are reviewing their policies or seeking alternatives as a way of reducing their exposure to lawsuits.

6. Mentally ill people are 2-4 times more likely to be tasered. A study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 30% of the people tasered in New York were identified as being mentally ill. How does the Berkeley Police department treat the mentally ill? With a desperate lack of emergency mental health services, police are often called upon to deal with emergency situations. At this point, our police chief sanctions the inhumane practice of hooding of mentally ill individuals and allows officers to engage in this practice without even have a policy on the use of such hoods. We fear that this lack of regard for the human rights of the mentally ill would extend to the way officers are empowered to use tasers.

7. People of color are more likely to be tasered. African Americans are only 13.6% of the total population, yet represent 45% of the 2009-2014 taser-related deaths in America. In Albany, New York, 28% of the population is African American, yet they are 68% of those Tasered. Racial profiling exists. Sadly, Berkeley Police don’t even keep data on the race/ethnicity of people they stop so we can’t even track the degree to which policies are implemented in racist ways.

8. We have a crisis of accountability for police. “Well, if a Berkeley officer acts out of line, why not just file a complaint?” you might ask. At this time, police accountability in this city (and state) is almost non-existent. Due to a California Supreme Court decision in the mid 1990’s called Copley Press vs. The City of San Diego, civilian review was severely limited, and in the city of Berkeley, it was decimated. These days, it is a minor miracle when an officer actually has a complaint sustained against him or her. If we put tasers into the hands of police, we will be powerless to even know whether or not they are being misused by police, let alone to actually punish an officer who deliberately misuses a taser.

9. The Berkeley Police Association has conducted a misleading, high profile campaign. The BPA touts a “survey” claiming to show that 83 percent of Berkeley residents support investigating the use of tasers to restrain violent individuals. It is useful to note that the survey was given to a select group of people from the BPA over email. The very biased questions yielded the desired results, but did nothing to help us build a community wide approach to emergency mental health services.

10. If someone dies from taser exposure, the DA won’t necessarily investigate because they only investigate firearms deaths. The employees in the District Attorney’s office explained this strange policy to us when we asked why the death of Kayla Moore was not being investigated. We know that there will be no justice for those who are wrongly tased and die as a result. It is sad, but it is the truth of the matter.

From our perspective, tasers only make sense if they are identified as lethal force and their use is limited to those situations in which lethal force would be justified. The problem is that far too often, tasers are used to overcome resistance to officer commands. It is common to read about officers who used tasers on people in cars, people who didn’t act quickly enough, or on people who asked “why?” one too many times. They have been used on children as young as eight and old people into their 80’s. They are known to be lethal.

We must raise the standard of what we consider to be real community safety and work to ensure that the safety of everyone in our community is of importance.

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