Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 16, 2007

Editorial: Council muffs it on Taser policy

Council members jump from idea to idea and wind up with a vague policy requiring a big investment of staff time -- they need to try again

Watching the Taser discussion by the Palo Alto City Council last week was shocking.

First, the council members gave short shrift to many weeks of work by the Taser Task Force, a group of citizens created by the council to take the heat from Taser opponents and research the use, safety and efficacy of Tasers. Task force members not only stood up to angry shouting, e-mail name-calling and slurs of the handful of vocal opponents but came out (by a strong 7-2 vote) with a carefully wrought set of policies that would make Taser use by police officers a reasonably safe bet for Palo Alto.

Reasonably. No one can reasonably say Tasers are safe, as the Weekly pointed out in a cover story (July 28, 2004) when Tasers were first proposed for the Palo Alto Police Department. The Weekly's coverage, by disclosing doubt about Taser safety, halted the purchase at a time when Tasers were being touted as a safe, "non-lethal" alternative in subduing an out-of-control person, compared to a gun, baton, spray, or a police dog. None of the above are "safe."

The council first discussed a motion by Councilman Peter Drekmeier opposing the purchase of Tasers. He cited safety concerns and a lack of need based on an historically low number of local cases where they might have been useful.

But a substitute motion by Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell picked up on an American Civil Liberties Union position that Tasers be used only in situations when "lethal force" would be permitted, a highly restrictive limitation that essentially limits use to when officers are confronting someone with a possible gun or other deadly weapon.

Then Councilman Larry Klein proposed a further alternative: that Tasers can only be used when it is permissible for an officer to draw his or her gun. The council supported that on a narrow 5-4 vote. Well, it sounds good, but it ignores reality and has serious flaws. Given only vague guidelines for when officers can draw guns, officials from the police department and the city attorney's office (most likely with consultant help) will have to fashion gun-drawing rules from scratch.

To make matters worse, the council directed that this fuzzy policy should be reviewed in 18 to 24 months to see if there are new studies that prove Tasers are safe.

To say zapping someone with 50,000 or so volts for up to 5 seconds is safe is just nonsensical, and to wait for studies to prove their safety is akin to waiting forever.

The alternative to this waste of staff time is for the council members to reconsider the Taser policy, and this time show they have actually read the minutes of the Taser Task Force and the six-page draft Taser-use policy developed by police Chief Lynne Johnson, supported by the task force. The policy was developed after a review of guidelines of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and policies of departments in San Jose, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Gatos and Fremont. Palo Alto is now the only police agency in Santa Clara County (other than the sheriff's department) without Tasers.

The draft policy correctly emphasizes the key issues in making use of Tasers as safe and effective as possible: training, monitoring and discipline. (The draft policy document is online at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.)

Cases of Taser-linked deaths seem predominantly to have been when a person is under on drugs, has a health condition or where officers have repeatedly used Taser blasts for an extended period.

Rigorous training, diligent monitoring and enforced discipline are the keys to effective use of Tasers in Palo Alto and elsewhere. The fact that Tasers have built-in cameras and recorders will help avoid Taser abuse. But Palo Alto's mushy "when you can draw a gun" policy completely misses the target, and disrespects the excellent work done by the task force.

The council either needs to decide Tasers aren't needed in Palo Alto based on history or adopt the fine recommendations of the task force. A no-Taser policy would be preferable to the current vague policy that just doesn't make sense: If an officer has cause to draw his or her gun, why draw the Taser?

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