City commission discusses homelessness, tasers at Wednesday meeting

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At a special Wednesday meeting, the Human Welfare and Community Action Commission discussed homeless rights and potential police use of Tasers.

The commission reviewed a draft memo to City Council, which recommended rejecting possible use of Tasers as a means of de-escalating conflict with police. Other agenda items included a presentation about the criminalization of homeless people, as well as the allocation of funding for the upcoming fiscal cycle.

According to the commission’s chair, Praveen Sood, there was no formal recommendation made to City Council regarding the police’s use of Tasers. Despite this, the commission, along with Berkeley residents who attended the meeting, wanted to communicate opinions on potential Taser use by police.

Sood said despite the recent police-related reforms proposed to City Council, including a temporary ban on less-than-lethal crowd control measures, the commission has been working on the issue of Tasers since mid-2014.

Reasons cited for the commission’s recommendation in the draft memo included concerns about residents with chronic conditions, who may suffer health complications from a Taser shock, and the potential for overuse of Tasers against the city’s homeless population.

The city has hired a firm to conduct a feasibility study on Berkeley Police Department’s potential use of Tasers, according to BPD spokesperson Officer Jennifer Coats and city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. BPD officers are currently not equipped with Tasers, Coats said in an email.

The commission also heard a presentation concerning the criminalization of homelessness from the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for poor and homeless individuals.

Paul Boden, the project’s director, said the organization has been campaigning in several states to prevent cities from outlawing what he called “chump-change” offenses — that is, homeless people loitering, sleeping, standing and sitting down in public.

One such ballot measure, which was struck down in 2012, would have restricted Berkeley residents from sitting or sleeping on city sidewalks.

According to Boden, however, the advocacy project’s message has so far been well received by other local organizations.

“They’re absolutely down for it,” he said. “Local government in Berkeley is still kind of ringing its hands, it seems, from the sit-lie campaign, but we’ll see.”

The Western Regional Advocacy Project will host a community forum at the Berkeley Action Center in South Berkeley on Feb. 6, according to Boden.

The next Human Welfare and Community Action Commission meeting is scheduled for Feb. 18.

G. Haley Massara is a news editor. Contact them at [email protected] and follow them on Twitter @BylineGraph.