I considered the Taser issue before, as a member of the city's Human Relations Commission. Police Chief Lynne Johnson mentioned a few years ago that she might someday want Tasers for use by the police. She recognized then that Tasers were fairly new, not fully tested and controversial, and that more information was needed about their effectiveness and dangers. She has since asked for approval for a state grant to help purchase Tasers if the city decides to do so. If Tasers aren't approved by the city, the funds could be transferred to other front-line equipment, such as upgrading guns, she said.
I recall breathing a sigh of relief when she said she would not immediately ask the City Council to approve acquiring Tasers. We had enough on our plate with calls for independent panels to conduct oversight of police actions, our review of police interrogation practices and our need to address allegations of police racial profiling.
But Tasers are b-a-a-ck, and I am liberated to speak about them. So here are some questions that the folks on the newly appointed Taser Task Force might add to their lists, if they are not already there:
Have Tasers become safer in the past few years? An investigative report by the New York Times several years ago raised serious questions about the safety claims of the company that sold Tasers.
The Weekly did a cover story that raised some of the same concerns ("Shock value," July 28, 2004 -- Web Link 2004_07_28.taser28.shtml).
So far as I know Tasers are not any safer now than they were then.
Would the possession and use of Tasers by the police be consistent with our image as a city known for inclusiveness and compassion? I have heard that Tasers are often used on the mentally ill who do not respond to reasonable police efforts to stop their misconduct.
I have also heard that pregnant women and people with heart conditions are among those who are most susceptible to being killed or seriously injured by Tasers.
Additionally, I have heard that Tasers have been used on people who did not pose a serious physical risk. On the other hand, in his book called Crazy, which explores the woeful state of our country's mental health system, former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley, quoted several police officers who claimed that using Tasers kept them from having to kill several people during high-risk confrontations.
Are other cities the size of Palo Alto and with similar crime problems obtaining Tasers? If so, what motivated them to purchase them? Given our crime rate I question the need for our police to have Tasers at this time.
Are there reasonable alternatives to acquiring Tasers? What about using nets on unruly criminal suspects? How about training and using more crisis negotiators?
How do our police officers and citizens feel about Tasers? Perhaps our city auditor, or the task force, should conduct a survey to learn the answer.
How reliable and consistent are electrical discharges from Tasers?
What is the track record of the company selling the Tasers?
Is it possible for the city to do a liability risk assessment before deciding whether to acquire Tasers?
If the police obtained Tasers under what circumstances would they be used?
Tasers do not appear to be ready for prime time, and they do not appear to fit with our city's image as a place known for its compassion and sensitivity.
My guess is that I will now forever be known in some circles as a compassionate softy, but the questions are real and deserve a hard-headed examination.