Police Commission braces for another Taser debate

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The proposal to equip SFPD officers with Tasers originated with former Police Chief George Gascon, now interim District Attorney
Photo by Charles Russo

The San Francisco Police Department, police commissioners, and community advocates are gearing up for another debate about whether or not SFPD officers should carry and use Tasers. The hearing will be held at tomorrow’s Feb. 23 police commission meeting.

Interim Police Chief Jeff Godown -- carrying forward a plan that originated with his predecessor, former police chief George Gascon -- called for a hearing on the Taser proposal, according to a Police Commission spokesperson. If it wins approval, the SFPD will begin conducting research to develop training and policy guidelines for the SFPD to implement Tasers. The issue has ignited fierce debate in the past, and resistance is likely to be revived on this go-round.

Last year, the commission rejected Gascon’s proposal to add Tasers to police officers’ use-of-force options. Now, Commissioner Angela Chan, who was appointed last year by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after the proposal had been defeated, is emerging as a voice of dissent.

Chan submitted a handful of reports published by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, and other sources critical of Tasers for commissioners to review prior to the meeting. She’s also preparing a 45-minute presentation highlighting concerns about the weapons.

The SFPD will give its own 45-minute presentation to try and convince commissioners that it should be allowed to move forward with the plan this time. “It’s another tool for officers to use when encountering violent persons,” noted Sgt. Mike Andraychak, a police spokesperson.

Andraychak said it was too soon to provide any details about whether the Taser proposal would take the form of a pilot program, or be implemented all at once. He did not have specific information about how training would be developed, how the department planned to solicit input from various communities, or how long the department expected to be working on a draft policy if the police commission granted approval. Chak did note that if the SFPD moves forward, it may host town hall meetings about Tasers.

The Feb. 23 police commission meeting is likely to bring vociferous community opposition. The Coalition on Homelessness (COH) and a number of other community-based organizations are encouraging people to attend the meeting and speak during public comment.

In a letter submitted to the police commission, Asian and Southeast Asian Societies, Causa Justa (Just Cause), The Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, COH, and other community advocates point out that Tasers have been declared a form of torture by a UN torture panel, and cite a University of Calfornia San Francisco study finding that police shootings more than doubled in the first full year of Taser implementation.

The community organizations also pointed out that Tasers are manufactured in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- and San Francisco is still boycotting Arizona for enacting SB 1070, a bill that has drawn widespread criticism for encouraging racial profiling. Meanwhile, in a lean budget year, the cost of implementing Tasers is estimated at around $2 million, according to the letter.

Despite being turned down last time, the department has revived its Taser proposal in the wake of two officer-involved shootings early this year, including one that struck a mentally ill, wheelchair-bound man who was brandishing a knife. That case came under scrutiny after it was caught on a phone camera and posted to YouTube.

Following that incident, Gascon suggested that the outcome may have been different if officers had the option of deploying Tasers.

Yet Allen Hopper, police practices director at the ACLU, questions the idea that deploying a Taser would have been the correct response in that circumstance -- especially in light of a recent Police Commission vote to strengthen SFPD practices when encountering people with mental illness. The Commission recently directed the SFPD to establish a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), based on a policing model that emphasizes deescalation. Yet Hopper says deploying a Taser would achieve just the opposite.

"We think it's putting the cart before the horse to give the police Tasers before they put that plan into effect," Hopper said. People with mental-health problems, he added, are more likely to be on strong medication, or prone to excited emotional states and rapid heart rates -- all of which could place them at a higher risk for serious injury or even death if struck with a Taser.

Counted among a class of weapons called conducted energy devices, Tasers deliver a painful electric jolt when deployed, temporarily immobilizing a subject by disrupting the central nervous system and causing involuntary muscle contractions. While they tend to be hailed by law enforcement as non-lethal alternatives to firearms, human-rights organizations have criticized Tasers because accidental deaths have been linked to their use. According to a report by Amnesty International, more than 330 people were reported to have died in the last decade after being struck by police Tasers. While not all of those deaths were directly attributed to the Tasers in coroners' reports, many of the people who died were found to be in "excited states of delirium" or under the influence of illegal drugs or prescription medications when they were Tasered.

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