Police gear up for round two on Tasers

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On February 4, the San Francisco Police Commission will hold the second of three planned community meetings to gauge support for a pilot program to arm 100 SFPD officers with Tasers. The controversial proposal pits police Chief Greg Suhr, a proponent, against civil liberties organizations and homeless advocates who are mobilizing public opposition to the Taser initiative. 

Shortly after being appointed police chief in 2011, Suhr said arming the SFPD with Tasers would not be a top priority. But following the police shooting of a mentally ill man last July, Suhr has pushed the Police Commission to allow members of the cities Crisis Intervention Team (CIT)—who receive special training to deal with the mentally ill—to carry Tasers.

Since the shooting, Suhr has repeatedly argued that Tasers would help save lives and reduce instances of gun use. "You do have to have as many tools in the tool box before you go to guns," he said at the first community forum.

The ACLU and local homeless advocates disagree.

“Every time there is an officer-involved shooting, the department uses it as an excuse to outfit officers with Tasers,” ACLU attorney Micaela Davis told the Guardian. “We continue to believe that Tasers are not a good alternative to firearms and we fear that officers run the risk of going to Tasers too early in a confrontation instead of using de-escalation techniques.”

Equipping CIT officers with Tasers would inject the controversial stun guns into already tense confrontations between the mentally ill and the SFPD.

Lisa Marie Alatorre, an organizer with the San Francisco Homelessness Coalition, argues Tasers could have a devastating effect on the city’s homeless population. “The CIT typically deals with people in crisis, people who are mentally ill, and people who are currently destitute and have nowhere to live,” she told the Guardian. “The use of Tasers in the midst of a crisis will cause severe trauma and could inflict significant psychological damage.”

Both the Coalition on Homelessness and the ACLU charge that the SFPD has dragged its feet in implementing the nonviolent components of the CIT program. Less than 75 officers have been trained in nonviolent confrontational strategies since the program’s adoption last summer, and Alatorre charges SFPD has yet to implement protocols that would bring the program to fruition.

Police Commissioner Angela Chan, a longtime proponent of the CIT program, echoed these concerns. “We need to improve our de-escalation tactics with regards to crisis intervention. Many of the steps to train and implement CIT have not yet been implemented and that’s where we need to focus our energies,” she told the Guardian.

Despite strong local opposition to Tasers, they are becoming standard equipment for police departments across the nation. SFPD officers are hopeful that public opposition does not kill this pilot program, like similar attempts before it.

Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a spokesperson with the SFPD, argued that equipping CIT officers with Tasers would give police more flexibility to use force without engaging their firearms.

“On the street, not every situation can be managed in a nonviolent fashion,” he told the Guardian. “CIT is a great program, and the implementation of Tasers would give those officers an additional tool to use before they have to escalate to deadly force.”

Police commissioners will make a final decision about Tasers after the third community meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 11 at the Bayview Opera House.

The next community forum on the SFPD Taser pilot program will be held on Feb. 4 from 6-8pm at the Scottish Rite Center, 2850 19th Ave, in SF.