Berkeley may reconsider TASER ban


Inside Bay Area

BERKELEY — More than 450 police departments in California have equipped their officers with Tasers.

Berkeley isn't one of them.

But in the aftermath of a deadly shooting of a South Berkeley woman by a Berkeley police officer, city leaders said they may rethink their ban on the electroshock weapon.

"I think it's too bad that our police don't have other methods to subdue people," Councilmember Betty Olds said.

Anita Gay, 51, was fatally shot by Officer Rashawn Cummings outside her home in the 1700 block of Ward Street about 8 p.m. Saturday after police say she wielded a kitchen knife at an officer and family members. She died at the scene. Witnesses say she was shot in the back, but police say they are awaiting an autopsy report from the Alameda County Coroner, expected later this week, before releasing specifics about the shooting.

The officer fired his weapon at least twice, said police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Kusmiss.

Based on a preliminary investigation, after reviewing three witness statements and the statement of the officer, Kusmiss said Monday "it appears the officer's actions were justified."

The officer, who has been on the force for five years, is on paid administrative leave while internal affairs conducts an investigation, which could take a week or longer.

As family members and friends grieve Gay's death, and Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris prepares to file a wrongful death suit, there is no doubt subduing Gay with a Taser could have saved her life.

Some models of the electroshock weapon can deliver a 50,000-volt jolt from 25 feet away, effectively subduing a person by disrupting superficial muscle functions, but usually not killing them.

"If (the police) had a Taser the person may be alive," said City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who has been on the council for five years. "I know the police internally have been looking into Tasers, but the City Council has never received a report on that. I encourage the department to look into it."

Many Bay Area police departments, including Oakland, Livermore, Pleasanton, Fremont and Union City, have Tasers as part of their arsenal.

Kusmiss said she spoke to police Chief Doug Hambleton on Monday about the issue and the chief said there have been discussions about getting Tasers.

"Yet up to this point, there has not been the political will to further those discussions," Kusmiss said.

Kusmiss said there have been situations where police have had to use physical force -- putting themselves and the suspect or suspects in serious danger.

"We have experienced many situations or incidents in which a Taser as an option may have been extraordinarily helpful in subduing a violent suspect and preventing injuries to both the suspect and officers," she said.

Three years ago, a Berkeley man, Howard Street, shot Officer Darren Kacelek in the chest during a chase and standoff in West Berkeley. Kacelek's badge deflected the bullet, and he was not seriously injured.

"But that shooting may have been a circumstance where the event could have ended very quickly if a Taser had been available," Kusmiss said.

Harry Stern, an attorney with Rains Lucia Stern, which represents the police union, said the Police Officers Association has asked for Tasers for years.

Berkeley police also do not have their own police dogs or helicopters.

A proposal from police four years ago to resurrect a canine police unit after more than 70 years, was shot down. Critics worried about the potential for accidental injuries from dogs and that a canine unit would unnecessarily rehash memories of police dogs attacking African-Americans in the South during the Civil Rights Movement.

Like the police dogs, Tasers have their fair share of critics.

According to Amnesty International, from June 2001 to June 2007, 245 people died in the United States after being shot with a Taser. Several of those Taser-related deaths were in the Bay Area.

Allen Jackson, the president of the Berkeley branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he doesn't see Tasers as being an alternative for police.

"Especially since they have proven to be lethal," he said.

Meanwhile, he said the Berkeley branch of the NAACP is calling for a federal investigation to determine whether the civil rights of Gay were violated. In a statement released Monday, the group said a "non-lethal method of apprehension could have been applied" to Gay.

"However, it is apparent that the only thing in the mind of a Berkeley police officer is to kill any African-American that they can," the statement said.

Both Gay and the officer who shot her are African-American.

Saturday's deadly shooting began to unfold about 6:40 p.m. when police were called to the 1700 block of Ward Street following reports of someone breaking windows. Police found a broken window at a residence next door to Gay's but no incident in progress and left.

Called back at 8 p.m., police found Gay on her porch with a knife and proceeded to "challenge her at gunpoint," Kusmiss said. Neighbors said Gay appeared intoxicated and may have been drinking or on prescription medication.

Then, Kusmiss said, Gay's two daughters came outside and Gay waved the knife at them.

"Given the proximity, the officer thought there was imminent threat," Kusmiss said.

Neighbors and witnesses, however, said Gay had either dropped or released the knife by this time and had her hands against an outside wall, per the officer's request. They said she then turned to walk up her stairs, at which point the officer shot her.

Oakland civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, who served on the Berkeley Police Review Commission in the 1970s, said Tasers can be an effective law enforcement tool, but they need to come with proper training.

"The problem historically has been they are overused and there are people you can't use them on, like people with heart conditions." he said.

Electric shock from a Taser could cause problems in someone with a heart condition or a heartbeat made irregular by drugs, medical professionals say.

Chanin said with the right training and limited uses, "I have no problem with it. When it becomes a substitute for verbal persuasion then I do have a problem with it."

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