Plan to arm police with Tasers raises concern
The San Francisco Police Commission held its second of three ordinated community meetings at the Scottish Rite Community Center on Feb. 4 to allow for community input regarding the Police Department’s proposed use of Tasers.
“Before the commission currently is a proposal to provide a certain amount of officers with Electronic Control Weapons (ECWs). We are taking that request seriously and are weighing that option,” said Police Commissioner Julius Turman. “We want to engage the public to understand their feelings and concerns.”
The proposal, which recommends a pilot program that would equip a specially trained fraction of the police force with ECWs, more commonly known as “Tasers,” has left civil rights and mental health advocates questioning the need for another “less-than-lethal” weapon in the hands of the San Francisco Police Department.
According to the SFPD’s working draft of the General Order on the Use of ECWs, Taser deployment is intended to “bridge the gap in the use-of-force continuum between lower levels of force and deadly force.”
“Because there is an assumption that Tasers are safer, police officers are more likely to use them—which is what makes them really deadly,” said Rebecca Ruiz-Lichter, an advocate for the Idriss Stelley Foundation and member of the Anti-Taser Task Force, citing the increase of police killings in Oakland after Tasers were integrated into the police force. “I don’t think the answer is to have these weapons that employ one-fourth of the shock of the electric chair on people that are suffering mental health crises.”
A main point of concern regarding Taser deployment was addressed during Monday’s forum by members of the mental health and homeless rights communities, who fear the impact that the 50,000-volt device may have on a person experiencing mental distress, as well as on people undergoing the physical and mental hardships of homelessness.
“We do not want to see the police department use any of those tools that are in your toolbox on the mentally ill,” said John Cooper, member of the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.
In the wake of an officer-involved shooting at the TCHO Chocolate factory last July, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr has expressed the need for additional “less-than-lethal” weapons at the department’s disposal. Tasers, he said, could avoid deadly encounters with weapons that lead to more “lawful but awful” shootings involving police officers.
“I resurrected the issue of officers having less-than-lethal weapons as another tool in their toolbox,” said Chief Suhr, emphasizing that the proposal would not extend to the entire police department, but only to “those officers who have had the most training in dealing with people in crisis.”
Both the Coalition on Homelessness and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), two vocal opponents to the Taser initiative, have urged the SFPD to fully implement the Crisis Intervention Training Program (CIT), charging that many of the steps to bring the program to fruition have not been taken yet.
Modeled after an initiative that originated in Memphis in 1988, the program was originally proposed for San Francisco in 2001 with the intention of training a portion of the police force on non-violent intervention. Over the course of 10 years, it was once cancelled due to a lack of funding, only to be re-established in February 2011.
In order to be certified under the CIT program, selected officers are subjected to 40 hours of de-escalation training, with a strong emphasis non-violent communication with the mentally ill.
To date, only five percent of the police department has undergone training in the CIT program. Chief Suhr estimates that a total of 118 SFPD officers are currently qualified to respond to crisis calls involving the mentally ill.
“We are looking at the militarization of the police department,” said Ruiz-Lichter. “[The department] wants more weapons as opposed to engaging in the CIT training that the commission ordered the police to do—and still haven’t done.”
According to Suhr, implementing the CIT program is still a priority on the department’s agenda—with the additional enhancement of Tasers. Placing Tasers in the hands of specially CIT trained, senior officers, he said, would be a safer alternative to guns.
“It’s not unlike other models we have,” added Suhr. “These officers have specialized training on how to deal with people in crisis and I believe that in fairness to them and the person they are dealing with, it would be nice if they had something short of a firearm.”
During public comment, ACLU attorney Micaela Davis questioned the guidelines and outcomes of Taser use as stated in the general draft order.
“Tasers are not a simple alternative to firearms,” Davis said. “In addition to the risk of serious injury and death, other risks [of Taser use] include the risk of litigation to the city, over use and unnecessary use, and the risk of disproportionate impact of Taser use on communities of color.”
Several community members also challenged the lack of transparency of the order.
“You talk about restrictions such as pregnant, elderly people, skinny people and young people,” said Virginia Marshall, a concerned San Francisco resident. “I thought to myself, ‘How skinny is skinny? How young is young?’ And I do not believe that you should ever tase a child or a teenager.”
The San Francisco Police Commission is scheduled to vote on the Taser initiative sometime in March.