Tasers in SF: The view from North Beach and Russian Hill

Several women chat on a park bench in Washington Square Park on Russian Hill. Photo by Susie Neilson

Covering the Police is an effort to look more closely at how police work in the Mission and elsewhere in the city. It is a collaboration with U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. 

On the foggy Wednesday morning after last week’s public hearing in which more than 100 residents made it clear that they largely oppose Tasers and distrust the police, a handful of North Beach and Russian Hill residents espoused a different view.

They felt ambivalent about Tasers, but would trust SF police officers to wield them.

 “They come in and play baseball with the kids,” said Nestor L. Fernandez II, the chief executive officer of the Tel Hi neighborhood center on Telegraph Hill, referring to the police. “We have a great relationship with them.”

Fernandez said he runs into police often because his center deals with at-risk populations, particularly mentally ill people. While he doesn’t love the idea of a Taser, he said, “It’s probably a better option than a gun.”

Tasers have long been controversial in San Francisco, and over the years, studies on Taser use have turned up issues, including new warnings on how to operate the device — and their status as non-lethal. Nevertheless, Tasers have earned widespread support among policemen, who welcome the addition of an intermediary between a baton and a gun.

“I support any tool that will help us do our job,” said Officer Jeffrey Chow, a beat cop patrolling Central Station’s North Beach neighborhood. Chow, 31, has been with the force for 10 years. During that time, he says he’s been in many situations where a Taser would have been useful.

“When someone’s in a mental crisis, or people with knives,” he said. “Something where lethal force isn’t necessary.”

Next to Chow, Officer David Oh smiled and nodded in agreement. Oh, Chow’s beat partner, has been with the force for 22 years.

The Central Station police district runs 1.8 square miles, from the Financial District through North Beach and Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf. It serves 75,000 residents, who are overwhelmingly white and Asian — about 45 to 46% each.

Beyond the force, residents here were largely ambivalent about Tasers, but had no ill will toward the police. Sean Singer, a 34-year-old teacher at Tel Hi, said he appreciates the way San Francisco police operate.

“I grew up in Philadelphia, and the police force I grew up with — I hated them,” Singer said.

Singer said he could see the benefits of having Tasers in the force. “It’s never fun to be Tased,” he said. But, on the spot, he said they were often a better alternative to guns.

Outside of the Tel Hi Neighborhood Center, a social services organization on Telegraph Hill. Photo by Susie Neilson

“They’re needed when they should be needed,” said 70-year-old espresso-machine repairman Christopher Cara, referring to Tasers. Cara’s family has lived in North Beach for five generations. His cousin was a fireman, and he says he grew up alongside many current and former members of the SFPD.

Cara believes that the opposition to Tasers stems largely from public mistrust of the police, which he believes is overstated.

“They get judged,” he said. “Not all cops are bad … You’re gonna have a bad apple in a lot of different barrels.”

Frank Balistreri, an employee of Pete’s Sports Bar on Green St., has lived in North Beach for 50 of his 57 years. Balistreri said he hasn’t “paid much attention” to Taser-related news.

But he does pay attention to his neighborhood.

“Every day is getting worse,” he said, exhaling smoke as he stood shivering in the fog at the corner of Columbus and Vallejo. “Homelessness, drugs, burglaries…”

And though crimes have escalated, “you can’t keep pulling out a gun,” Balistreri said.

On the brink of saying he supported Tasers, Balistreri paused, his face twisting. “A lot of us are confused about this,” he said. “Every time you add something to the force, it’s not always good.”

He then suggested the department implement a trial period of six months, so officers could determine whether Tasers helped de-escalation efforts.

Others also expressed reservations about Tasers, particularly the research from Amnesty International in 2012, showing 500 instances in which Tasers proved lethal.

In North Beach’s Washington Square Park, Sonnet Harrison, a 37-year-old owner of a dog-walking business, said she “could see why people wouldn’t want to risk accidentally killing someone.” Harrison trusts the police. “I’ve seen them be nice to homeless people,” she said.

Across the park, 34-year-old Mickey Mills sat on a bench with a bag of plastic crystals on his lap. Mills is homeless, and lives on this bench for now. “I Tased myself one time, to make sure everything worked before I did a burglary,” he said.

These experiences haven’t turned Mills off to Tasers, nor the police. “I don’t have anything against cops,” he said, twisting a crystal by its string. “They have a job to do.”

Residents will be given another opportunity to attend a hearing on Tasers tonight from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the lower level City Cafe at City College Student Union, 50 Phelan St. 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Neko Atsume

    Completely biased pay-for-play article. Why not do some real reporting? Leave the bs to the National Enquirer.

  2. Joe Luttrell

    Washington Square Park is not “Russian Hill”

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