by Carol Denney
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat is the Berkeley Police Association’s best argument for using tasers?” Jeremy Miller, program director of San Francisco’s Idriss Shelley Foundation, was asked this question as one of the five panelists on the East Bay Media Center’s recent forum on the police use of tasers, held on Sept. 4, 2014.
Miller thought long before answering. He and the other panelists had just undercut every possible argument for taser use, including the most prevalent myth — that equipping police with tasers reduces the use of deadly force by police.
“Their best argument,” he answered, “is that everybody else has them.”
Taser use has swept the nation under the guise of officer and public safety. Very few police departments requesting tasers have been denied them, but San Francisco is one police force which could not overcome, even after repeated campaigns, dedicated community opposition, as well as opposition from within the police department by the group representing African American police officers, Officers for Justice.
Officers for Justice sent a letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee saying they do not support the proposed increased use of tasers or stun guns. They say they’re against tasers because they’re afraid they’ll be used on certain classes of people like drug abusers, mentally disabled people, and minorities.
San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr finally withdrew his request for tasers altogether when the recommended limitations on their use created, in his opinion, “too much calculus” on the part of police officers.
Police departments equipped with tasers experience an astounding 544 percent rise in in-custody deaths within the first year of getting tasers, according to panelist Barbara Ann White, the vice president of Berkeley NAACP and a Bay Area mental health professional.
Ms. White and the other panelists gave repeated, sobering testimony about the disproportionate use of tasers on at-risk populations and people of color, including a study cited by former public defender Aram James done by the ACLU of Nebraska which showed that 77 percent of those subjected to taser use were from vulnerable populations, categories which include the very young or old, pregnant women, people with cardiac or respiratory disabilities, homeless people, people using drugs or alcohol, people in restraints, etc. White stated that statistics showed 40 percent of people killed by police have mental health issues.
Police officers in five states have filed lawsuits against manufacturer Taser International claiming they suffered serious injuries after being tased during training, and Amnesty International has tracked more than 500 deaths in which coroners cited tasers as either the cause or contributing factor in taser-related deaths nationally.
Panelists underscored that these statistics are conservative, reflecting only well-documented incidents, and estimated the actual deaths at closer to 800.
Former public defender Aram James stated “85% to 95% of people hit with tasers are unarmed.” James read a portion of former Newark Police Chief Ray Samuels’ letter which emphasizes that one can’t create a safe policy for an inherently unsafe weapon.
Panelist James Chanin, founder of Berkeley’s Police Review Commission and civil rights attorney, stated that tasers are “NEVER used as a substitute for deadly force,” noting the “Russian roulette” aspect of taser use. “I want to talk about the timing,” he said. “This is being pushed by the Berkeley Police Officers’ Association.”
Panelists Shahid Buttar of Washington D.C.’s Bill of Rights Defense Committee joined other panelists in noting the timing of the Berkeley police’s request for tasers in a racially polarized, post-Ferguson moment.
Berkeley’s severe racial disparities in income, test scores, and health issues have alarmed community members for years, but there is currently no effort on the City of Berkeley’s part to track traffic stops by race even though Oakland has done it for years, according to the panelists.
The speakers also expressed concern about the terms “excited delirium” and “sudden in-custody death syndrome,” which Miller described as “invented medical conditions” still used to describe deaths of people in police custody which Miller estimated at approximately 1,000.