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.

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