Tasers for Berkeley Police? Not the Best Way to Deal with Most Crisis Situations

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 06, 2014 - 11:02:00 AM

Another week, another mentally ill person killed by peace officers.

Berkeley readers might wonder why this week’s issue includes a Bay City News story about an 18-year-old woman who was shot to death in Half Moon Bay last week. I’ve reprinted it here because I think it’s pertinent to a question which was briefly addressed in an “Editor’s Back Fence” entry about the Isla Vista tragedy which appeared early last week, before the young woman was killed.

This is the gist of what I said there, which I think bears repeating since many readers only check in once a week:

On this site we’ve hosted an excellent pertinent discussion between regular columnists Ralph Stone and Jack Bragen about the advisability of laws requiring involuntary treatment, the “Laura’s Law” category. There are two points which I think were not fully addressed in their thoughtful essays, however. 

First, it’s one thing to require treatment in certain circumstances, but this presupposes readily available and effective mental health services. In my own experience with trying to help people in emotional distress, even some quite willing to seek help, there’s a serious shortage of resources. A class action lawsuit was filed in October against Kaiser Health Foundation over mental health care wait times, and there are many similar complaints against other health care providers. So even if Laura’s Law or something similar were enacted, there’s no guarantee that persons detained would actually be treated. In this case, family members had been trying to find appropriate treatment for the disturbed young man, but hadn’t found anyone who could help. 

Second, the widespread practice of using law enforcement personnel to handle mental health crises doesn’t work much of the time, and it failed this time. The media is full of stories of disturbed people, both dangerous and harmless, who died during inept police attempts to deal with their problems. 

On NPR this week, I heard about a mentally ill veteran who was shot and killed by two police officers in Lodi. Berkeley’s Kayla Moore, who died as police struggled to subdue her, is the most obvious example, one of many who have died after presumably well-intended peace officers were called to the scene by family and friends. 

In the Isla Vista case, a family request for a welfare check produced seven armed sheriffs who incorrectly decided that the young man was no danger to himself or others, a tragic error in judgment. It’s one thing to have armed officers as a safety backup, but the principal analysis and handling of a suspected mental health crisis situation should be done by a qualified mental health professional. 

Today’s Chronicle has a very good op-ed, Better Outcomes With Voluntary Care, written by Eduardo Vega, executive director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco and Catherine Blakemore, executive director of Disability Rights California. Their key contention: 

“If we adopt programs like AB1421 [Laura’s Law] , which are fraught with bureaucratic, ethical and legal challenges, we will waste time and money. If we demand effective, evidence-based supports and treatment that are grounded in human dignity, we will soon see a positive difference in our communities and on our streets.” 

Another element in this mix is currently under discussion in Berkeley: should our police force be equipped with tasers? The intuitive answer is “of course”, since tasers are not lethal like guns, 

A relative of the woman shot in Half Moon Bay was quoted as asking why the sheriff who shot her didn’t use a taser instead. But it’s not so simple. 

Tasers can be lethal too. Opponents of taser use in a letter to the Planet have said that tasers have been linked to over 500 deaths since 2001. Both the ACLU and Amnesty International have come out against taser use in most circumstances. 

The Berkeley death of Kayla Moore, who suffered from mental illness and used drugs, would not have been prevented if the police had used a taser to subdue her.  

The problem in this and similar situations is that using potentially deadly force, whether from bullets or tasers, is just not the best way to deal with a person who has mental problems. And it’s certainly not the best way to deal with someone who is passively resisting arrest. 

Time and again, police officers who either shoot or taser people say, as the sheriff did in Half Moon Bay, that they “feel” that their lives are in danger. That seems to be what motivated the BART policeman who killed Oscar Grant, even though Grant was lying down when he was shot. At his trial, Officer Mehserle's attorney argued that Mehserle shot Grant by mistake, intending to reach for his Taser. But with a sizeable percentage of victims, tasering an unarmed person who was lying down would still have resulted in serious injury if not death.  

In September the Berkeley City Council is scheduled to consider the question of whether the Berkeley Police Department should be allowed to issue tasers to its officers. Anyone who’s interested should take advantage of the summer break to assemble and refine their arguments. 

Various groups including Copwatch, the NAACP, the city’s Mental Health and Public Health Commissions and the Police Officers Association are expected to weigh in by then.  

As of this moment, I think that there’s no good reason to authorize the Berkeley Police to use tasers—there are better ways to address the kinds of problems they usually face. What’s certain is that mental health professionals should be taking the lead in dealing with people exhibiting signs of emotional crisis, not police officers. And that means that we in Berkeley need to ensure adequate funding for community resources to prevent such crises before they happen.