Mental health advocates worry that Tasers could undermine SFPD's de-escalation training
"If CIT is not doing well ... I am going to be strongly opposed to any adoption of any pilot program," Chan said. "I do prioritize one above the other."
DEATH BY TASER?
A Taser is an electroshock weapon that can administer 50,000 volts through two small probes, disrupting the central nervous system and bringing on neuromuscular incapacitation.
While Taser proponent Chuck Wexler, a researcher who spoke at the hearing, emphasized that Tasers "are for saving lives," studies have shown that the risk of death or serious injury increases under certain circumstances. Someone who is Tasered while fleeing police can suffer serious injuries if they can't break their fall. There are dangerous implications for people whose heart rate is accelerated due to cocaine or methamphetamine, and as the Memphis Police Department learned many years ago, Tasers don't mix with flammable substances, like an alcohol-based pepper spray that has since been discontinued.
"Lots of times it's not about the product itself, it's about ... risk factors," said Maj. Sam Cochran, who worked with Dupont in Memphis to create CIT. "Under some circumstances, things can happen very fast."
Safety concerns are heightened when it comes to the mentally ill. It's common for people experiencing psychiatric episodes to behave violently, speak incoherently, and ignore commands, creating the kind of scenario where law enforcement would likely opt to deploy a Taser. According to an extensive research inquiry on Tasers published by the Braidwood Commission on Conducted Energy Weapon Use, Tasers can be especially dangerous when used against people who are delirious.
"First responders should be aware of the medical risks associated with physically restraining a delirious subject or deploying a conducted energy weapon against them," according to Dr. Shaohua Lu, who is quoted in the study. "They likely have profound exhaustion and electrolyte changes before delirium kicks in. At that stage, any additional insult (e.g., struggling or fighting) can lead to the body just giving out, resulting in cardiac arrest and death."
Since 2004, when the city of San Jose first equipped officers with Tasers, seven people have died following police Taser deployments. At least one was mentally ill.
MaryKate Connor, a mental-health provider who founded the now-defunct Caduceus Outreach Services, told the Guardian she didn't think the police officers could separate the issues of less-lethal weapons and tactics for handling the mentally ill. "The promise of the CIT program, whether the police want to acknowledge it or not, is that this is a huge cultural shift," she said. "It's not about finding a new weapon. It's about finding a less lethal way to respond, period."
Joyce Hicks, director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, sounded a similar note during the hearing. "No weapon can substitute for sound tactics," Hicks said.