Coalition for a Taser Free Berkeley assembles to discuss police taser use

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Berkeley residents gathered Thursday at a public forum hosted by the Coalition for a Taser Free Berkeley to discuss whether its police force should be allowed to carry tasers.

The advocacy group assembled in Downtown Berkeley in hopes of getting the public to endorse a ban on police use of tasers. The controversy arose after Berkeley City Council voted 6-3 in May to have the city manager conduct a study on whether to equip Berkeley Police Department officers with electronic stun guns. According to the Berkeley Police Association, a labor organization representing more than 150 officers, sergeants and command staff, tasers are a way for officers to protect themselves during physical altercations in a nonlethal manner.

The panelists at the forum included Berkeley NAACP Vice President, Barbara Ann White; founding member of the Berkeley Police Review Commission James Chanin; and Idriss Stelley Foundation Program Director, Jeremy Miller, among others. The panel agreed that police officers should not be equipped with tasers due to their harmful consequences.

The Berkeley Police Association has tried to shed light on the issue of police taser-use through public-education campaigns, community surveys and letters to the council and Berkeley’s Police Review Commission.

But Berkeley Copwatch, a volunteer organization that monitors police action and members of the coalition, asserts tasers can be lethal, citing human rights agency Amnesty International that there have been at least 547 taser-related deaths by law enforcement since 2001.

Andrea Prichett, a co-founder of Berkeley Copwatch, and Paul Kealoha Blake, a member of the city of Berkeley’s volunteer Mental Health Commission, are the key organizers of the event.

“It is time for the City of Berkeley to return to the humane approaches for which it was once famous and reject the militarization of care which has overtaken our approach to community health and safety,” Prichett said in April in a post on the Coalition For A Taser Free Berkeley website.

Proponents of a taser-free Berkeley argue that Berkeley police already asked for pepper spray as an alternative to deadly force and therefore do not need tasers as a second alternative. According to Prichett, the Berkeley Police Department initiated a campaign to obtain pepper spray in 1997.

Additionally, they say cops cannot identify if members of the public have underlying medical conditions that could be aggravated by being hit with a taser gun, which may lead to lethal consequences such as heart attacks.

Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Jesse Arreguin and Max Anderson voted against the proposal in May. Worthington, who was the only city council member present at the meeting, urged Berkeley residents to reach out to their council member asking for support.

“We believe that it is the duty of the officers to place the well being of the community at the forefront of their efforts,” Prichett said.

Jane Nho covers crime and courts. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @JaneNho.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated that proponents of a taser-free Berkeley argue that pepper spray is an alternative to tasers. In fact, they argue that Berkeley police already asked for pepper spray as an alternative to deadly force and therefore do not need tasers as a second alternative.

A previous version of this article misspelled Andrea Prichett’s name.