Tasers vs. talk

Mental health advocates worry that Tasers could undermine SFPD's de-escalation training



At a Feb. 23 Police Commission hearing, San Francisco interim Police Chief Jeff Godown told the civilian oversight board he wanted to investigate Tasers as a less-lethal weapon for San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officers. Speaking to a room crammed full of community advocates who had turned out to rail against the idea, Godown seemed to try to preemptively address a concern that opponents were sure to raise during public comment.

"This is not about mental illness," the chief said. Along with police commissioners who favored the Taser proposal, Godown drove that point home several more times throughout the evening, stressing that Tasers were not being sought as a law enforcement tool for dealing with violent, mentally ill individuals. Nevertheless, he said situations could potentially arise in which the stun guns would be used against the mentally ill, if officers were authorized to carry the devices.

At the end of a marathon meeting, SFPD won approval to spend 90 days investigating Tasers and other less-lethal weapons as possible additions to the police arsenal, which now includes pepper spray and batons as well as firearms. Advocates raised concerns ranging from misuse of the devices to accidental deaths caused by Tasers to documented overuse of the weapons in communities of color. The SFPD, meanwhile, emphasized that it saw Tasers as a way to improve officer safety while limiting the use of lethal force.



Throughout the discussion, concern about the use of Tasers as a tool against the mentally ill persisted despite the chief's assurances. "Like it or not, these issues are intertwined," said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Police Practices Director Allen Hopper. He referenced comments made by former Police Chief George Gascón, who now serves as district attorney.

On Jan. 4, SFPD officers fired twice at Randal Dunklin, a wheelchair-bound, mentally ill man who was brandishing a knife outside the city's Department of Public Health building. Dunklin allegedly stabbed an officer and suffered a nonfatal gunshot wound to the groin after he had tossed the knife. In press comments delivered in the aftermath, Gascón said the situation illustrated why the SFPD ought to carry Tasers.

"Not only was that not an appropriate circumstance for the use of a Taser, there were so many things wrong with the way police handled that situation," Hopper said, referencing a YouTube video of the shooting that served to highlight key differences between the official police account and the events caught on tape.

Dunklin was the third person in recent months to be shot in an altercation with officers. Vinh Bui, who was 46, was fatally shot in Visitacion Valley in late December 2010. Michael Lee, who was 43, was fatally shot in a residential hotel in the Tenderloin a few months earlier. Both had a history of mental illness.

Police Commissioner Angela Chan told the Guardian that in light of these tragedies, she became concerned that the first commission meeting of the year initially featured a discussion about Tasers.

"I thought, this does not make any sense," Chan said, because commissioners hadn't yet looked at creating a specialized police unit for dealing with psychiatric crisis calls, a move she'd urged the department to consider. The commission schedule was rearranged to reflect her concern, and Chan rushed to book experts for a detailed presentation about crisis intervention training (CIT). In a unanimous vote at the Feb. 9 meeting, the police commission approved implementation of CIT.

The specialized policing technique is patterned after the so-called Memphis model, which originated in Tennessee in 1988 in the wake of a public outcry that arose when white officers gunned down an African American man with a history of mental illness.