BERKELEY -- While neighboring police departments equip their officers with Tasers, Berkeley police aren't authorized to carry them.

Last month, the union representing Berkeley police emailed surveys to 19,000 registered voters to see if it's the right time to call for Tasers in Berkeley.

"Our goal right now is just to get the conversation started," said Berkeley Police Association President Sgt. Chris Stines. "There has been a sense that there has been community opposition to Tasers, but we really don't know if that's true. We work for the community and we want to make sure that we're representing their interests."

A Taser, or stun gun, can deliver 50,000 volts of electricity, causing the subject uncontrollable muscle contractions and instant collapse. Supporters say Tasers save lives by giving police alternatives to the use of deadly force on dangerous or uncooperative people.

In a February 2012 report, however, Amnesty International said at least 500 people have died since 2001 after being shocked with Tasers, though most of the deaths were attributed to other causes. However, according to the report, medical examiners have listed Tasers as a cause or contributing factor in more than 60 deaths, and in a number of other cases the exact cause of death is unknown.


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The report notes that people suffering from heart conditions or intoxication can suffer adverse effects. But according to the Taser International website, "There is currently no medical evidence that (Tasers) pose a significant risk for induced cardiac dysrhythmia in humans when deployed reasonably."

There is currently no plan for the Berkeley Police Department to purchase Tasers, according to Police Spokeswoman Jennifer Coats. She added that police would not purchase Tasers without a green light from the City Council.

Recalling the uproar caused by the proposal (subsequently withdrawn) by Berkeley, UC Berkeley and Albany police departments to purchase an armored vehicle with no public process, Councilman Laurie Capitelli underscored the need for the council to have "a fully vetted discussion" before police could purchase Tasers.

"My mind is not closed to the idea," said Capitelli, whose son is a police officer in another city. Capitelli said his son told him he fired his Taser just once, and has used it successfully at other times as a deterrent.

"Obviously, we've all read or heard stories about people being injured or even dying after being Tased," Capitelli said. "I'd want to know what those risks are. Obviously, if we ever went to (Tasers), there would have to be very prescribed situations where their use might be appropriate."

But Andrea Prichett of community activist group Copwatch said it's already difficult to get information from police. She cited the recent death in police custody of Kayla Moore, a mentally ill transgender woman, and said the Police Review Commission and public have been stymied in their efforts to obtain information on how Moore died. If the police deployed Tasers, "We would have no way to monitor how or when under what circumstances they were being used," Prichett said.

Prichett also said the police union survey was "biased."

She pointed to one of the questions, which asks what police should do when they confront a violent individual carrying a dangerous weapon. The survey gives the responder choices of using batons/physical force, firearms or Tasers.

Prichett said the survey doesn't offer de-escalation. "There's nothing about alternatives to violence," she said. "(The survey) paints the Berkeley Police Department as sort of a one-dimensional institution that all it has is a hammer and a bigger hammer to solve every problem."

She said resources would be better spent on crisis intervention training and mental health services, she added.

Councilwoman Linda Maio said she is concerned with possible overuse of the Taser. "Since the Taser is not a gun, would police be more likely to use it?" she asked.

Note: This story has been corrected to say that Amnesty International reported that 500 people have died since 2001 after being shocked with Tasers, though most of the deaths were attributed to other causes.

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