The Taser problem

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By Tim Redmond

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Still not a lot of details on the machete-wielding man shot and killed by the SF cops this weekend, but the incident is once again renewing the discussion of Tasers.

In the wake of a study written by Assistant Chief Morris Tabak that says that some fatal shootings could have been avoided if the cops had less-lethal alternatives, the Police Commission is going to look at the use of the high-voltage stun guns. Chief George Gascon favors equipping officers with the weapons.

It's probably true that Tasers would have saved lives if the cops had zapped some suspects instead of shooting them. In the Asa Sullivan case, for example, an unarmed mentally ill man died when officers opened fire; a less-lethal alternative would have been more than adequate to subdue the guy.

But Tasers have their own problems -- particularly if officers are authorized to use them in situations where drawing a firearm would be prohibited. Consider the case of Oscar Grant, killed by a BART police officer who later argued that he thought he was pulling a Taser, not a pistol.

Grant clearly wasn't enough of a threat that the BART police should have used lethal force to subdue him. But using a Taser apparently seemed just fine. See, once you give the cops Tasers, they're going to see them as a simple way to incapacitate unruly people -- unless there are very clear rules. Tasers can kill people, too, and should be treated as an alternative to lethal force -- not an alternative to handcuffs.