Council OKs Taser purchase, breaks own resolution
on July 7, 2010
The timing of Tuesday’s request from the Richmond Police Department to the City Council for permission to purchase $84,000 worth of Tasers admittedly wasn’t perfect. But, law enforcement officials say, it was inevitable.
Ultimately the City Council approved the Taser-brand stun-gun purchase order unanimously during a wide-ranging weekly meeting Tuesday night, but not without some teeth-gnashing. In order to make the purchase, the council had to knowingly break its own resolution directing city staff to avoid doing business with companies in Arizona until that state repeals SB 1070, the controversial immigration bill.
The Richmond Police Department currently uses Taser-brand “electronic-control devices” that it purchases through an Arizona-based vendor called ProForce Law Enforcement, which police say is the sole vendor for the products on the West Coast.
During its May 5 meeting, shortly after Arizona passed SB 1070, Richmond’s City Council had voted unanimously to formally oppose Arizona’s immigration law and pledged to have city staff refrain from doing new business with companies headquartered in Arizona.
Earlier Tuesday, the federal Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Arizona, asking for a permanent injunction against the law, which brought the issue back into the forefront of the news just in time to make Tuesday’s council decision that much more awkward.
“I’m sort of conflicted about it,” Councilwoman Maria Viramontes said before Tuesday’s council meeting. “On the one hand, I understand the reasonableness of the request – [the police department] probably has a contract – but I’m upset about the Arizona law, and I really like the idea of communicating that [through the ban].”
Viramontes said she was unaware that the police department’s sole vendor for the Taser stun-guns was located in Arizona until Tuesday.
“The next few days are kind of sensitive on this issue,” she said. “I’m curious why it came up right now.”
The request for new Tasers takes on added significance for many in the Bay Area in part because, in addition to breaking the council’s resolution against doing business with Arizona, the purchase also comes against the backdrop of a high-profile police-shooting case in Oakland involving a Taser that’s heading to jury deliberations this week. One of the central questions in that case is whether former BART Police officer Johannes Mehserle mistook his pistol for his Taser before fatally shooting a 22-year-old man in the back. That case has been ongoing throughout the summer, and a verdict is expected this week.
Police Lieutenant Mark Gagan said the department is simply making the request as part of its yearly reassessment of the department’s equipment, since the fiscal year just ended.
The purchase of 75 Tasers, plus holsters and cartridges, will be spread out over the next three years. The purchase is meant to replace Tasers that have been in use for more than five years, and to equip some 60 officers who currently don’t carry one of the electronic-control devices. The Taser gun is designed and marketed as a “less-than-lethal” alternative to handguns.
On June 15, the department requested permission from the council to purchase nearly $100,000 worth of Remington 870 shotguns and Glock handguns from a San Jose-based vendor.
“I absolutely understand the council’s resolution and why they made it,” Lt. Gagan said. “And we have been in compliance with it. But in this case, we have no other choice, so we really are relegated to asking for this purchase. We’re not asking this light-heartedly.”
Gagan pointed out that the department has cancelled plans to have members of the force’s helicopter unit travel to Tuscon to participate in a training program there out of deference to the city’s resolution.
In its staff report to the council justifying the Taser purchase, the department points out that the Richmond police force has already sunk close to half a million dollars into Taser-brand products, and that switching to another brand would cause problems.
“Requiring the Police Department to substitute out another [electronic-control device] product for the Taser is like a company or governmental unit that had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in PCs suddenly being required to do business only with Apple,” the report says.
According to information its Web site, ProForce Law Enforcement, the police department’s Arizona vendor, provides equipment to several departments in Northern California, including the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, the Concord and Walnut Creek police departments, and the California Highway Patrol.
The question of whether police should carry Tasers at all has also been a sore subject for many people in Richmond, including Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who initially voiced concern about the devices when police first began carrying them in late 2007.
While Gagan said Richmond Police officers are subjected to stringent Taser training that goes beyond state-mandated guidelines, the weapons have caused some controversy here recently. In April, a BART Police officer used his Taser to subdue a 13-year-old boy near the Richmond BART station. The incident led to BART police being ordered to turn in their Tasers until receiving further training.
The X26E Taser model uses compressed nitrogen to shoot two metal probes carrying an electrical charge into a subject. The probes are attached to the Taser device by thin, 35-foot-long electrical wires. The probes can transmit 1,200 volts of electricity into a subject, causing “neuro-muscular incapacity,” which temporarily impairs a person’s ability to move.
After Tuesday’s council meeting, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said that she felt comfortable, if not entirely pleased, with the Taser purchase based largely on semantic grounds. Because the Arizona immigration law hasn’t gone into effect yet, McLaughlin explained, Richmond’s ban on Arizona hasn’t begun yet either, meaning the Taser purchase checks out.
In other business during Tuesday’s council meeting, several members of the council, as well as speakers from the audience, engaged in what could only be described as an act of monumental irony – spending close to half an hour arguing about ways to speed up council meetings.
Councilman Nat Bates, who abruptly left the council’s June 22 meeting in protest of its length, argued on Tuesday that the City Council should limit the number of presentations it hears and awards it often hands out. During the June 22 meeting, council awarded nine separate certificates of recognition. But the debate quickly turned into a finger-pointing debacle between Councilman Bates, Mayor McLaughlin and City Council candidate Corky Booze over the way the council recognizes members of the public.
Bates also accused Councilman Jim Rogers of honoring some Black city residents and businesses at council meetings simply to court the Black vote. Booze, who was in the audience, followed the exchange by lighting into Councilman Bates for not standing up enough for the city’s Black community. “Don’t blame somebody else for helping the African-American community when you’re the only African-American on the council,” Booze said.
The council ultimately agreed to exercise a bit more self-discipline in adhering to the three-commendations-per-meeting limit.
Pot dispensary owners in Richmond got some good news – but not much – during Tuesday’s meeting. City councilmembers remained tight-lipped about upcoming plans to establish a system to track and regulate where and when medical marijuana dispensaries operate in Richmond.
Several of the city’s estimated eight or nine dispensaries have faced injunctions and penalties in recent weeks for failing to have a proper business license. Currently, the city is not zoned for a pot dispensary anywhere, meaning any cannabis club in Richmond is technically operating illegally. Pot club owners have been pressing the council to establish a way to grant their businesses the relevant licenses.
The council apparently discussed the issue during closed session, but did not disclose the specifics of a new plan, except to say that it will likely unveil a new ordinance relating to the matter at its July 20 meeting.
Tuesday’s meeting started on a somber note, as several family members of Asama Ayyad, the 20-year-old El Cerrito man who was gunned down in Richmond last week outside his Cutting Boulevard mosque, spoke before the council.
Police say Ayyad was on his way home from evening prayers at the Al-Noor Mosque when 19-year-old Nickie Donald of Richmond allegedly shot at Ayyad’s car, killing Ayyad but not a teenage passenger. Police say Donald mistook Ayyad’s car for that of a gang member.
The council formally recognized Ayyad, as well as the two other Richmond homicide victims that died last week, by closing Tuesday’s meeting in their honor.
* This story was updated July 7 to correct a factual error.
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