Taser debate takes off once again at Police Commission

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Commander Mikail Ali displays a taser at for the San Francisco Police Commission
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY YAEL CHANOFF

At a police commission meeting last night, commissioners delayed the vote on a controversial agenda item: adding tasers to the SFPD toolbelt. Specifically, Chief Greg Suhr proposed discussing a pilot program that would allow tasers for the 74 officers who have been trained through the department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program, created last year.

This is not the first time a police chief has introduced the possibility of tasers. In February of both 2010 and 2011, the police commission discussed adding the less-than-lethal weapon to the SFPD arsenal.  But community opposition, ACLU opinions, and commissioners concerned about the risks of tasers thwarted the effort.

Suhr says he brought up the issue in light of the July 18 killing of Pralith Pralourng. Suhr said he believes that if the officer involved had been equipped with a taser, Pralourng, who wielded only a boxcutter, may be alive today.

Several members of Proalong’s family attended the commission meeting last night. His sister, Savee Pralourng, read a statement asking that her brother’s death not be politicized for police department purposes.

“The SFPD wants to use his death to justify getting tasers,” said Pralourng.

She added other concerns about the police deparment’s handling of the death.“We have not been given any information about his last moments or how he died,” she said. “They need to know how to deal with mental illness, police need to address them differently.”

“This is an issue of the department having options available to them to mitigate the need for lethal force,” Commander Mikail Ali said at last night’s meeting.

But opponennents say that issuing tasers will lead to officers using them in questionable scenarios.

Tasers are called less-than-lethal, but can result in death. The risk of death is increased if the tased individual is child, elderly, pregrant, very thin, has acidoss, or on cocaine or methamphetamine. Police are trained to aim their guns for center mass, but with tasers the risk of death is increased if the subject is hit in the chest-- the electric shock’s proxmimity to the heart can cause ventricular fibrillation.

"You have pepper spray, you have billy clubs, you have rubber bullets. What more do you need?" activist Debray "Fly Benzo" Carpenter admonished the police chief.

As a result of last year’s iteration of the year’s-long debate, the police department was tasked with preparing a report on the  potential use of tasers and what other less-lethal options were available.

The report was never completed.

This concerned several commissioners, as well as ACLU attorney Micaela Davis, who presented at the meeting. The ACLU sent a 12-page letter to Mayor Ed Lee outlinging their issues with tasers, and has reported in the past that police use of tasers in Northern California is dangerously unregulated and leads to death at a surprising rate.

Of the top 20 largest police departments in the coutry, San Francisco officers are the only ones without tasers. Even Memphis, the city with a police traning program for interacting with mentally ill people in crisis that has become a national model, recently voted to allow tasers. San Francisco's CIT program is based on the Memphis model.

The conversation may have been happening for years but, commissioners decided, this new attempt was too hasty. Many were surprised to see the item on this week’s meeting agenda. Many members of the public were angered as well that no public comment period was sheduled for the item, and expressed their opposition to tasers during comment periods meant for other topics.

“The virtue of good government is patience and consideration,” said Commissioner Julius Turma. “I don’t feel fully informed on this issue.” Turman, along with Commissioner Angela Chan, called for a delay on the vote.

Commissioner Petra DeJesus said that if more notice had been given on the vote she would have “asked the city attorney’s office for an opinion on wheather we can tase just a certain population.” The proposed pilot program would put tasers in the hands of only officers who have been through CIT program, a training for interacting with mentally ill people.

Suhr said that was a false characterization. The police department would not be “singling out a demographic of people they might be used on,” he said. Instead, CIT officers simply “have done more training to deal with the mentally ill.”

The CIT program is meant to train officers who will be dispatched to respond to calls involving mentally ill people in crisis. However, these officers do not work exclusively in these situations.

The CIT training, whose formation marked a rare consensus between the police department, commission, community mental health organizations and advocacy groups, have begun but are running behind schedule. Davis argued that to distribute tasers to the officers in the training before they complete it would be premature-- and that, if they know that at the end of the training they will get tasers, they may be less inclined to practice crisis intervention using other, less dangerous tools.

Carpenter, who was thrown out of the meeting after he and other activists shouted "he's lying!" when Suhr reported the number of officer-involved shootings over the past year as well as other interuptions, said the prospect of tasers worries him. "I've been pepper sprayed for no reason before," said Carpenter. "If they had tasers, would they have tased me?"

The comission will continue to research and discuss the issue, and, with more notice, public input into the issue promises to mount. The next police commission meeting will take place August 15. The controversial topic, which has produced what Police Commission Vice President Joe Marshall called "robust conversations" several times before, is likely to produce another in the next few weeks, both in and outside police comission meetings.

"The violence in the southeast sector over the past four days has been devastating to our City-- we know we can do much better.  Let’s work together to and create San Francisco solutions to San Francisco problems. The Black Young Democratic Club is open to help facilitate this conversation," reads a statement the club released yesterday in response to the taser proposal.

"I can guarantee you, you look at the communities of color, those are going to be the folks that are dealing with the police and the tasers," said Theo Ellington, president of the San Francisco Black Young Democratic Club.

Comments

In general I'm against them, which puts me in the strange company of "Fly Benzo."

Posted by Troll II on Aug. 02, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

I am for the tasers for the police because i think in the long run they help to save lives

Posted by Raymond Torres on Aug. 03, 2012 @ 4:32 am

"Of the top 20 largest police departments in the coutry, San Francisco officers are the only ones without tasers."

GOOD! San Francisco should not join the rest of the country in its downward right-wing spiral, even though San Francisco has already joined the downward spiral in some ways (sit-lie, for example). We don't need to go any further.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 03, 2012 @ 2:36 am

I think the police should have these weapons to protect themselves and the Public

Posted by Raymond Torres on Aug. 03, 2012 @ 4:35 am

Being shot.

Although some might argue with that . .

Posted by Guest on Aug. 03, 2012 @ 5:04 am

i agree with you it is better to be tasered than being shot and killed

Posted by Raymond Torres on Aug. 03, 2012 @ 11:51 am

There are numerous situations where officers could use these.

Think about this. Whether you like it or not, we currently trust police officers in SF with guns, pepper spray and batons, two of the three can/are lethal weapons. They undergo 6 months of training prior to hitting the streets and are under incredible scrutiny from both the media as well as the public when things go wrong.

Tasers are simply another tool. Less than 1% of taser uses have resulted in fatalities. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but this is SF.

Posted by D.native on Aug. 03, 2012 @ 7:12 am

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers are just that. A specially selected group of first responder patrol officers who have learned about mental illness and have empathy for those suffering it. They receive 40 hours of intensive training that include de-escalation courses and scenario-based training that equip them with the skillset to calm these situations down and get the person the help they need. This usually means hospitalization in lieu of incarceration.
Since these dedicated TEAM officers have the empathy and communication skills to deal effectively with persons experiencing this illness it is prudent that they have additional tools on their gun belt to take the person into protective custody without having to resort to lethal force.
As the former Director of Training of a fairly large police department and the CIT Coordinator there I made sure that my CIT officers had the training to use the Taser properly in these situations if need be. This goes back to 2000 when we first created a CIT PROGRAM. I capitalize this because we believe that CIT is more than just training! It is a partnership with the community (Law Enforcement, Corrections, Courts, Advocacy, Mental Health Providers, and Consumers (EDP's) to create a much better and safer outcome in these situations, which let's face it - can be dangerous.

Posted by Dutiful Mind on Aug. 04, 2012 @ 11:06 am
Posted by Guest on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 8:42 am

Once again there is an emotional response from the crowd who's behaviors might find them selves in circumstance to be tazed. This is the largest truth. Despite variables (excuses)(reasons) etc. When someone is a threat to anyone elses safety. They are the least improtant person in the room. There should be Tazers and Police should not be scared to use them. EVERYONE ELSE should not be put at risk.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 12:42 am

Wake up call. If they have rubber bullets it's enough. Adding the TASER electroshock weapon (esw) to the belt is just a waste of money.

If you get another gun to the one you already have, it won't keep you safer. .
Buying TASER esw for the cops won't make things safer for them or the public since they already have ranged non-lethal weapons (rubber bullets).

TASER esw are going to be abused by the Police. In stead of talking, they are going to shock you.

Posted by Paul on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

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