The San Francisco Police Commission came to its senses last night, and -- after an immense amount of work by community activists and Commissioner Petra DeJesus -- voted 4-3 not to move forward with a plan for giving the cops Tasers.
A lot of the discussion revolved around the safety of the stun guns; zapping someone with 50,000 volts can cause injury and sometimes death. But there’s another issue here, and the pres coverage only touched on it.
When, exactly, would Tasers be used?
From the Chron:
After becoming chief in July, Gascón commissioned a study of officer-involved shootings in San Francisco over five years that found that as many as one-third could have been avoided had police been able to use Tasers.
But 38-year SFPD veteran Vince Repetto, who joined a contingent of officers waiting to speak in favor of Tasers, said before the meeting that the Taser proposal is literally "a life-or-death decision."
"It's not if, but when, a Taser is used to stop a knife-wielding suspect and a life is saved," he said. "Then you will see the results of your decision. Let us hope that same suspect is not shot dead because an officer lacked a valuable option to deadly force."
Okay, so the idea here is that a Taser is a replacement for lethal force? That cops should use Tasers instead of their service pistol in an instance when a shooting would otherwise be justified?
Remember: Under police general orders, it’s only okay to draw and fire a gun when an officer’s life of the life of another person is in imminent danger. That means a suspect has a lethal weapon of his or her own, and is directly threatening someone with it.
Gascon says that there were five instances where a police shooting could have been prevented if the cops had Tasers. As he told my colleague Rebecca Bowe in an interview:
We just did a study of San Francisco police shootings in the last five years. We looked at 15 or 16 shootings, and of those we have determined at least five that, if the officer would’ve had a Taser available, they would have been able to control the situation without having to unload their firearm. And some of those shootings, by the way, resulted in the death of the other individuals. So we believe that even within the deadly force universe if you will, the Tasers sometimes have a very useful place in reducing violence.
What this says to me -- since a Taser isn’t considered a substitute for a gun in a case where there’s a real threat -- is that there were five cases where the cops shouldn’t have shot someone. Somehow, I can’t see the SF cops using Tasers on people they think are about to kill another person.
What I do see is officers using their Tasers on people who are just a pain in the ass; it’s way easier to cuff a difficult suspect if you zap him immobile first.
The chief acknowledged to Bowe that Tasers could be misused:
Any time that you have human beings involved there will be sometimes when they will be involved in aberrant behavior.
Do we have officers that overdrive? We do.
One of the deadliest weapons we have is an automobile, but I don’t hear people saying we should take their cars away and make them walk. It’s a tool, and it it’s a tool that has the potential for being misused. How do you reduce that misuse? Training, discipline and supervision.
The problem is that people in San Francisco -- particularly people of color, low-income people and people in some neighborhoods -- have had such a bad experience with the SFPD in the past that they aren’t going to trust the department to properly train, discipline and supervise its armed force. I think Gascon needs to rebuild that trust first -- and one way to start is by demonstrating that the department is serious about internal discipline. Then we can talk about adding more firepower.
(Oh, and by the way: This entire episode demonstrates the value of having appointments to the Police Commission split between the mayor and the supervisors. The differing perspectives and opinions allowed for some real debate.