Following public outcry and outrage from the family of Pralith Pralourng, who struggled with mental illness and was fatally shot July 18 by San Francisco police, Chief Greg Suhr revived the stun gun debate without public notice at the Aug. 1 Police Commission hearing. The commission, led by Angela Chan, tabled the stun gun decision until requirements in a Feb. 23, 2011, proposal are met.
A citizen majority has protested stun gun use at every commission meeting since.
In response, Suhr and the commission arranged six community forums on non-lethal weapons and use of force. At the meetings, the police department will hear public comments and explain:
1. Why they again want stun guns
2. “Potential implementation plan” language describing how officers would use stun guns once allowed to procure them
Three of the forums already have occurred. The remaining forums:
- 6 p.m. today, City Hall, Room 400
- 6 p.m. Tuesday, Downtown High School, Potrero Hill
- 6 p.m. Nov. 7, City Hall, Room 400
Amnesty International reports that since 2001, stun guns have killed at least 500 U.S. residents, the largest number, 92, in California.
On Aug. 1, Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus recited Taser International instructions describing vulnerable “high-risk” populations: “pregnant, infirm, elderly, small child, or low body-mass (index) persons.” Stun gun use can be fatal to people with heart problems and drug users.
In Aug. 12 public comments, Deetje Boler of San Francisco said: “ ‘Less lethal’ is a misnomer. (Tasers) are more lethal because the assumption is they are not lethal.”
Since 1995, San Franciscans, noting stun gun deaths, have redirected cops from weapons to verbal de-escalation.
Taser International, an electroshock weapons purveyor, manufactures conducted energy devices. Gas cartridges propel pairs of metal darts into clothes, skin and muscles. Cattle prod-type prongs administer 50,000-volt shocks, triggering muscle contractions, paralysis and collapse.
Clay Winn of Taser International gave a PowerPoint presentation at the Aug. 1 Police Commission meeting displaying the company’s X2 dual laser-sight technology, showing officers where top and bottom darts penetrate different muscle groups ”to take that structure out.”
After San Francisco police shot Mesha Monge-Irizarry's mentally ill son, Idriss Stelley, 48 times, to understand what her bereaved victims' client families suffered, Irizarry underwent Tasering at her Idriss Stelley Foundation counseling office.
She collapsed, immobilized by “unbelievable pain” and nerve damage. Now she walks with a cane.
Last year, onlookers in Fullerton were horrified watching police beat and shock a “gentle homeless man,” who died five days later. Did repeated shocks kill 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, who was mentally ill?
San Francisco’s de-escalation history
Irizarry and Marykate Connor, Caduceus Outreach Services executive director, reported concerned advocates first addressed the San Francisco Police Department’s psychiatrically ill citizen killings in 1995-96.
In 1997, Connor and others presented plans to the Police Commission. Officers in teams would receive 40 hours of specialized training to respond to “800 calls” (the police dispatch code for responding to a “disturbed person”). Command would authorize them to lead in psychiatric crisis situations. To ensure they have the empathy needed for this specialized role, officers would volunteer. Claiming it had no funds, the police department put the program on hold.
Connor heard an NPR series on increased police shootings of people “behaving bizarrely,” highlighting a model in Memphis, Tenn., strangely like San Francisco's verbal de-escalation program.
Irizarry said that following public outcry after 2004, 2008 and 2011 police shootings, San Franciscans defeated the police department’s “non-lethal weapons over guns idea.” In 2011, after advocates pushed for de-escalation, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón sent officers and advocates to Memphis to study its Crisis Intervention Team program. The program remains on hold.
States Connor: “What happens to 'crazy' people in crisis is criminal. They get killed for needing help.”
Connor said mistakes are made when uniformed police bearing weapons and state authority to kill employ “command and control” tactics, shouting orders that evoke terror reactions in people in crisis, escalating the situation.
Mental health professionals use verbal de-escalation without injury.
1. Wearing a uniform
2. Carrying a weapon
3. In a power struggle with the person in crisis
They want to know who the sufferer is and why he or she is upset. Memphis is unique because:
1. Officers make up a special status team.
2. Team members volunteer, motivated by concern for people in crisis.
3. “Brass from the chief down authorizes and supports it.”
4. “Authority is given to the officers to make this work.”
Michael Gause, associated director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, emphasized that the Mental Health Association supports internationally recognized best practice in the Crisis Intervention Team’s verbal de-escalation training. “It works,” he said.
With veteran advocates, case managers and psychiatric emergency experts, Gause helped develop the police Crisis Intervention Team training course outline covering crisis behaviors – suicide, PTSD and veterans' issues.
Commander Mikael Ali and organizations including MHA held three four-day/40-hour training sessions. One occurred in June; another is happening this week.