Tasers vs. talk - Page 2

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


Memphis model policing emphasizes de-escalation, which is quite different from the everyday command-and-control method cops are trained to use against suspects. Under this model, officers are taught to consider things such as the tone of voice they are using to communicate with the mentally ill person, the distance they are standing from them, and how the individual might respond to their behavior. Whenever it's safe to do so, officers are encouraged to allow the mentally ill person the time they need to calm down.

Samara Marion, an attorney and policy analyst with the Office of Citizen Complaints, traveled to Memphis to witness CIT officers on duty. "I was absolutely impressed," Marion said. "It is community policing at its best."

CIT has been credited with a dramatic reduction in officer-involved shootings against the mentally ill in Memphis. Randolph Dupont, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Memphis-based School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy, told the Guardian that studies had shown mentally ill people who dealt with CIT officers were more likely to be in treatment three months later than those arrested by non-CIT officers. "Mental health is a community issue," he said. "You don't want it to be a police issue to resolve."

In San Francisco, the program envisions training about 20 percent of the police force to create an elite unit of CIT officers, selecting those who are more experienced and have better track records in dealing with the public. Once in place, 911 dispatchers would alert CIT when SFPD receives calls involving psychiatric crises. On arriving to the scene, a CIT officer would be responsible for taking charge of the situation and directing other officers.

This is the second time an attempt was made to move forward with crisis intervention in San Francisco. In 2001, the department implemented generalized crisis training to all officers instead of intensive training for a specialized unit. However, that low-level effort was canceled last year due to budget cuts.

While CIT won resounding support from the community, the Feb. 23 discussion about Tasers drew tremendous opposition, with around 50 advocates speaking out against the plan. Hopper's criticism, echoed by several mental-health providers, was that SFPD's campaign for Tasers sent a mixed message and threatened to overshadow the CIT effort by seeking a quick fix based on a tool instead of a tactic. And rather than moving toward the goal of de-escalation set by CIT, Hopper said, the use of Tasers could exacerbate a situation instead, making it more dangerous for everyone involved.

"The Police Department — we think to its credit — has recognized that [addressing] mental health issues is a departmental priority," Hopper said. "We think it's putting the cart before the horse to give police Tasers before they put that plan into effect."

A mental-health advocate who said she is "living the Kafkaesque world of a family dealing with mental illness" urged the commission to hold off on talking about Tasers until after CIT had been implemented, saying the two were closely connected.

"If you vote to purchase Tasers, you're undercutting the message that they need to learn de-escalation," another mental-health advocate noted.

Yet Marion said she thought adequate time was being allotted to study less-lethal weapons, and did not think this would undercut the CIT effort. "As long as the department continues to be motivated and engaged, I don't see it being a problem," she said.

Chan told the Guardian that the day after the Feb. 23 commission hearing, Godown phoned her to say he remained committed to CIT. Although she voted to allow police to move forward with investigating Tasers, Chan said her final support would depend on the success of CIT.