Tasers, the stun-gun weapons central to the controversial death of an unarmed BART passenger in 2009, could soon be issued to every single officer on the agency’s police force.
On New Year’s Day, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was fatally shot by Johannes Mehserle III, a BART police officer. Mehserle, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter last year, claimed that he mistakenly thought he was firing his Taser during the incident.
When Mehserle killed Grant, only 60 of the department’s police officers carried Tasers. On Thursday, BART’s board of directors will vote on a measure to purchase 130 new Tasers — enough for every patrol officer on the force.
Following the death of Grant, BART commissioned a series of reviews of its police department, and one report — conducted by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement executives — recommended that each officer on the force carry a Taser.
Since the Grant shooting, BART also has increased its required officer training levels from 24 hours every two years to 40 hours each year.
Police chief Kenton Rainey, hired by the agency in the wake of Grant’s death, has recommended deploying more Tasers, and his opinion was endorsed by the agency’s four-person police review committee. The new Tasers would provide an extra degree of safety for officers, agency officials say, and would give them a less-lethal option when detaining uncooperative suspects.
A decision to deploy Tasers has been controversial at other police agencies. Last year, the San Francisco Police Commission rejected a proposal to arm officers with Tasers following a report by UC San Francisco cardiologists who found that the number of in-custody deaths increased by 600 percent in the first year a department started using the weapon. Earlier this year, the commission allowed The City to study the use of Tasers.
BART board Director Lynette Sweet, a member of BART’s police review committee, said she has some misgivings about Tasers. But given the agency’s commitment to increased officer training with the weapons, she said she is OK with buying more.
“It was really unfortunate that Mehserle was able to use his Taser as an excuse for killing Oscar Grant,” Sweet said. “But we’re training our officers to make sure that will never happen again.”
John Burris, the lawyer who represented Grant’s family in a civil suit against BART, agreed that it is a good thing to purchase more Tasers — provided that officers receive proper training and don’t abuse the weapons.
The contract proposal for the new Tasers, slated to cost BART $140,755, would need two-thirds approval from the agency’s nine-person board of directors.
Status of Taser use by BART police
60 Tasers currently in use by the BART police department
130 Tasers that would be purchased under new contract
$140,755 Cost of new contract
206 Total BART police department positions (not all are filled)
2008 Year agency last purchased Tasers