The San Francisco Police Commission decided Wednesday night to allow the police department to research and propose a pilot program involving Tasers or a similar less-lethal weapon.
The 6-1 vote came about 11:30 p.m., after six grueling hours of presentations and comments by community members. Chief Jeff Godown must bring a proposal back to the commission within 90 days.
The commission’s decision came about one year after members voted down a similar proposal by former police chief George Gascon. But as The Bay Citizen reported last week, a crop of new, pro-Taser commissioners, the implementation of a new mental health-related program and Godown’s less aggressive approach made commissioners more open to considering the controversial weapons.
Godown will research the proposal with the help of the Office of Citizen Complaints and commissioners Angela Chan and Jamie Slaughter. It will include suggested policies and guidelines for the use of Tasers or another weapon, as well as recommended changes to tactical training and use of force policies. Commissioners also asked the chief to include expected costs and funding sources, and obtain the input of various stakeholders, including communities of color and mental health professionals.
Although some alternative weapons were mentioned during the meeting, commissioners focused mostly on Tasers. The police department criticized the SL-6, a large pistol-like weapon that fires rubber bullets, which commissioners had previously considered a main alternative.
Commissioner Petra Dejesus, who garnered intermittent applause from many Taser critics, was the only commissioner to vote against the proposal. She said the costs and dangers of Tasers outweigh their benefits and accused commissioners of playing politics.
“I am concerned by this resolution. No matter how you dress it up it’s a soft-pitch way to get Tasers,” she said. “We’re here to do what’s best for the citizens of San Francisco, not for the political patronage of someone who’s no longer here.”
Chan wavered during the vote, but ultimately decided to support Godown after he promised to prioritize the implementation of the CIT program, a crisis intervention team utilized for mental health emergencies modeled after a program in Memphis that the commission voted to implement only two weeks ago.
“I am not going to slow up on that program and speed up on the CED program, hypothetically,” he said. “That is my commitment to you.”
The meeting began with a lengthy presentation from police, who role-played an encounter with a domestic violence suspect.
Watch a video of the role-play on Taser use enacted at last night's police commission hearing.
Three officers also described harrowing experiences with suspects that they said could have been prevented with Tasers. Dr. Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, outlined current standards and guidelines for Taser use and reiterated the organization’s original recommendation of Tasers after a study of the SFPD in 2008. Sheriff Michael Hennessey also said that in the eight years the Sheriff’s Department has used Tasers, they’ve been discharged only 14 times.
In an opposing presentation organized by Chan, commissioners heard from lawyers, researchers and civil rights groups about potential dangers and liability concerns. Allen Hopper, police practices director for the ACLU of Northern California, played a series of videos showing police misuse of Tasers. Dr. Zian Tseng, an assistant professor at the University of California at San Francisco, presented his research showing that in-custody deaths at some police departments shot up six-fold in the year after Taser implementation. The 2009 study, which Tseng said is not scientific, had swayed the commission's vote last year by prompting commissioner Jim Hammer to vote down Gascon’s proposal.
This year, Tseng said, he recommended Tasers if police were also equipped with their “antidote,” a defibrillator.
Lawyer John Burton also said use of the weapons is on the decline. Taser International, the major manufacturer of the weapons, has begun issuing warnings against using the weapons with certain subjects, increasing the legal liability for police departments who use them, Burton said.
Lawyer John Burris also said the weapons are not likely to be used as an alternative to lethal force.
“As I listen to this, it sounds to me like it’s a question of the Joneses. Everyone has it and we don’t,” he said. “You are not being fair and clear if you think this is a weapon to be used in order to prevent deadly force.”
A lengthy public comment session followed the presentations. Many expressed concerns about the weapons being used disproportionately against mentally ill and people of color. Others expressed concerns about the hefty costs and the fact that Taser International is based in Arizona, conflicting with San Francisco’s ban on dealings with the state.
Godown said his proposal would address those concerns.
“We will have a thoughtful, very slow, methodical approach about what we bring back to the commission,” he said. “Whether I’m chief for one more day or one more hour, I have an obligation to keep my officers safe. I have an obligation to the men and women of this department to give them another tool.”