Police Chief William McManus came to a City Council committee last week with what he thought was a rather routine request and came away with a controversy.
The item on the Public Safety and Regulatory Services agenda simply requested that the committee vote on accepting a bid for supplying tasers–the guns that deliver an electric shock–to the police department. McManus was hoping to upgrade the force’s current model and provide the weapon to new recruits. But Council Member Gary Schiff (Ward 9) had other ideas.
“I have no intention of approving this,” Schiff said, adding that the council needed to deliberate further before delivering “a thousand tasers into the hands of every officer on the street. It’s an enormous policy step.”
Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality agreed. She said there are issues of safety and liability connected with taser use and that the manufacturer, Taser International, is fighting lawsuits all over the country because of its unwillingness to provide accurate information about how to use the weapon.
Michael Friedman, the former chair of the city’s Civilian Review Authority (CRA), noted that his agency has dealt with several complaints about the inappropriate use of tasers and suggested that the council confer with CRA staff about those incidents before adding more weapons to the police department’s arsenal.
The council needs to review how other cities are dealing with issues of liability and usage, said Schiff, who was visibly upset with the request. “Who authorized a bid for a thousand tasers?” he asked Deputy Chief Tim Dolan.
Dolan explained that it was a routine request and had not been authorized, adding that the actual bid was for 160 new weapons and 1,000 cartridges. “We would never have a thousand tasers out there,” he said. “We just want to replace the old tasers and supply new ones to the new officers.”
The request, said Chief McManus, is part of the city’s federal mediation agreement. Tasers were first provided to police officers as a nonviolent means to control unruly individuals. “The agreement requires that we explore the use of non-lethal force,” he said.
Nonetheless, committee members agreed that a public hearing was in order and postponed the decision on the bid until February 15.