It has been little more than a month since outrage swept the nation in response to the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking protests, solidarity marches, online campaigns and other actions of support. Although the widespread media coverage of the violent actions of police in Ferguson has subsided, the recent conversation in Berkeley about the use of tasers has ensured that monitoring police actions can continue on a local level.
In May, Berkeley City Council voted to conduct a study on whether to equip Berkeley Police Department with electronic stun guns. Some Berkeley civic organizations have come together under the umbrella of the Coalition for a Taser Free Berkeley to advocate a ban on taser use by police officers. According to the Berkeley Police Association, tasers are an important tool for members of the police and act as a step between pepper spray and guns. But indiscriminate use of tasers can aggravate unforeseen medical conditions, possibly leading to lethal consequences. We recognize both the pros and cons of tasers. Instead of choosing a side, our focus is on the importance of the dialogue surrounding police brutality in Berkeley, even in the absence of an immediate catalyst.
Berkeley is in a better position than many other cities. According to the New York Times, Ferguson’s police department, like many others in the nation, fails to even closely match the demographics of its population. With 83 percent white police officers serving a population composed of 29 percent white citizens, the Ferguson police department falls short of properly representing its city. It is disconnected from the community it aims to serve. Compared to Ferguson and many communities across the United States, the disparity in racial makeup between BPD and the Berkeley population is small. The department comprises 56 percent white police officers in a city with a population made up of 55 percent white citizens.
We can’t ignore the fact that racism still exists within this country. Police officers may act on racial stereotypes when stopping a citizen. Citizens may distrust police forces who have shown patterns of racism through arrests and other actions.
We don’t need the police department, or even the city, to prove to us that equipping police officers with tasers is beneficial. Rather, we hope they take steps to prove the police are worthy of the public’s trust. While it is important that citizens are paying attention to their police, they shouldn’t have to. Police are tasked with defending the public. The public shouldn’t have to be defenders against the police.