Talk of Tasers Overwhelms Police Commission Debate Over SFPD Use of Force

A Taser X26. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Taser X26. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

The latest revival of an old San Francisco debate over Tasers dominated a Wednesday night meeting of the city’s Police Commission, where the public got its first look at a proposed set of changes to how and when officers are allowed to use force.

Police Chief Greg Suhr presented four draft policies to commissioners at the meeting. Three revise and expand existing department general orders on use of force. The fourth would arm approximately 100 specially trained officers with electronic stun guns commonly known by the name of their dominant manufacturer — Taser.

Suhr and Mayor Ed Lee said shortly after the fatal Dec. 2 police shooting of Mario Woods that the department would again seek approval for the devices. Suhr and three chiefs before him have tried to get approval for using the “less lethal” weapons, but public concern that Tasers can be fatal and could be misused derailed each request.

The limited pilot program Suhr introduced Wednesday met familiar opposition.

“It’s unfathomable to me to think that adding another weapon to an arsenal of a Police Department that is out of control is going to solve our problems; it’s not,” San Francisco resident Nancy Reiko Kato told commissioners. “The problem is with the policies that allow police to draw their weapons on unarmed people.”

Broad changes to those policies are also on the table. The department’s proposed use-of-force general order emphasizes the preservation of human life and verbal de-escalation. It also introduces a principle that any force officers use should be proportional to the threat they’re facing, especially if that threat involves a weapon other than a firearm.

Police say Woods was armed with a knife and had stabbed someone less than an hour before he was confronted by a large group of officers. Bystander cellphone video shows Woods begin to stagger away from the main group of officers, but toward one who stepped into his path. Five officers fired a barrage of shots, hitting Woods some 20 times, according to attorneys representing his family in a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

“It’s really kind of astonishing what a horrible time it is for this to even be on your agenda, how disingenuous it is to look at the killing of Mario Woods as being somehow related to the lack of Tasers,” said Andrea Prichett, head of a Berkeley-based police watchdog organization. “What killed that man was an incredible lack of sensitivity to the value of black life. That’s what killed him, and it is a deeply rooted culture in San Francisco.”

The head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association has repeatedly said that having Tasers as an option would likely have prevented Woods’ death. The police officers union submitted a separate, broader Taser proposal to the Police Commission Wednesday that would equip officers specially trained for responses to people in psychiatric crisis — members of the department’s crisis intervention team.

POA President Martin Halloran said the department should train every officer in crisis intervention — a move already implemented for all new recruits — and then immediately train and equip them with Tasers.

“We are optimistic that, this time, this lifesaving tool will not be stalled by unreasonable opposition,” he said.

Police commissioners didn’t discuss the POA’s proposal, but all the new draft policies are heading to a working group that will include police officers and heavy representation from the union.

Commission President Suzy Loftus said the U.S. Department of Justice would also weigh in as part of a recently announced federal review of the Police Department.

Commissioners Petra DeJesus and Victor Hwang unsuccessfully attempted to remove any discussion of Tasers from the broader use-of-force policy changes.

“This is such a big and controversial issue, it’s going to overwhelm our other discussion around the good stuff happening around use of force,” Hwang said.

DeJesus said that including the request for Tasers in use-of-force reforms is a “backdoor way” to push the weapons through approval when the public has said over and over again that it doesn’t want them.

“The real question is who’s asking for the Tasers, and it comes down to the department and the mayor,” she said. “That is concerning that we’re not even listening to the community.”

Prohibited uses of a conducted energy device (Taser) in SFPD's proposed policy.

Prohibited uses of a conducted energy device (Taser) in SFPD’s proposed policy.

Suhr said the department’s proposal is limited and would allow for only about 5 percent of officers — members of the SWAT Team and others with specialized tactical training — to carry Tasers.

“They would only be allowed to use the Tasers or the conducted energy device when the suspect is armed with a weapon short of a firearm,” he said. “They would be prohibited from using that [Taser] on an unarmed suspect or a person who is only a danger to themselves and a variety of other situations.”

Commission President Loftus said the process would go forward as planned, denying Hwang’s request to split Tasers from use-of-force discussions and DeJesus’ suggestion that the commission vote on whether the SFPD should pursue the devices before crafting policy for them.

That process, including the Justice Department and working group reviews, should take about two months, Loftus said, at which point the policies will come back before the commission.

“This is fundamentally about re-engineering use of force,” Loftus said. “Tasers are a part of it that have been requested by the department, but the opportunity is so much bigger for San Francisco to fundamentally lead and actually analyze how we train and equip officers to use force.”

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