Following a hearing at the San Francisco Police Commission that stretched late into the night, the seven-member panel voted 6 to 1 to authorize the San Francisco Police Department to develop a proposal for implementing Tasers or other less-lethal weapons.
Representatives from immigrant advocacy groups, communities of color, queer and transgender communities, mental-health professional organizations, and civil-rights watchdog groups turned out en masse to voice opposition to the plan. Out of around 50 speakers, just one spoke in favor of adopting Tasers.
As the discussion wore on, commissioners revised the resolution again and again. Interim Police Chief Jeff Godown had initially requested permission to draft a proposal in 30 days; it was extended to 90. Instead of researching the feasibility of Tasers alone, commissioners said the SFPD should look into other less-lethal weapons as possible alternatives. Another amendment prioritized outreach to marginalized communities.
Commissioner Petra DeJesus cast the lone vote of dissent, saying, “No matter how you dress it up, it’s a soft-pitch way to authorize Tasers.” DeJesus voiced concerns about how the departmental budget would be impacted. She also noted, “They’re being used more in the minority community, and that’s the community we’re trying to build trust with.”
Commissioner Angela Chan invited a series of guests to testify about concerns surrounding Tasers. Among them was Attorney John Burris, who has sued police departments over misuse of Tasers; a University of California Berkeley professor who gave a detailed presentation about Tasers and cardiac arrest; and Allen Hopper of the American Civil Liberties Union, who presented a video clip showing outrageous instances of Taser use. At the end of the night, however, Chan was persuaded to go along with the proposal.
Chan later told the Guardian that she supported the resolution because the timeline had been lengthened, which allowed for greater community outreach, and because the discussion had been broadened to include discussion about less-lethal weapons other than Tasers. Also, Chan noted that her suggestion for the force to review their use-of-force tactics as part of moving forward with the program was integrated into the resolution.
Several members of the San Francisco police force told horror stories about situations in which they said they could have used Tasers. A Mission Station officer suffered an attack by a Nortenos gang member in Garfield Park, and feared for his life until backup arrived. A Tenderloin Station officer was thrown into a store window after responding to a call about a trespasser. Just before it happened, “I was reaching for my firearm, and I was going to shoot him,” the officer said.
During the hearing, Chief Godown asked all SFPD officers to stand. He announced, “Everybody that’s in this room are my kids. I’m passionate about making sure they don’t get hurt.” Following a role-playing scenario in which a person waved a knife at an officer, Godown said that without a Taser, “That officer would have had no other option but to shoot that man.”
Equally disturbing, however, were stories about Taser deployments gone wrong. There was the petite African American woman who was at a drugstore buying candy when police attacked and Tasered her because they mistook her for a shoplifter. There was the Virginia couple that was hosting a backyard baptism celebration when police responded to a noise complaint and Tasered them both; the woman was pregnant, and could have suffered a miscarriage due to the electric charge. There was the 17-year-old grocery store clerk who suffered a heart attack and died after police Tasered him -- the whole thing started with his employer’s complaint that he was eating a hot pocket he didn’t pay for. Then there was the man who was Tasered during a traffic stop by cops who thought he was drunk. In reality, he was in diabetic shock.
Mayor Ed Lee’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Cristine DeBerry, made an appearance to say Lee was in support of the department’s proposal to move forward with investigating the use of Tasers.
Sheriff Mike Hennessey also offered comments, saying Tasers have been an effective tool in San Francisco jails, yet are rarely used.
Community members, meanwhile, raised a slew of concerns. They highlighted pending budget cuts and asked how these new and expensive instruments could possibly be paid for. They questioned the erosion of trust between police and the public, particularly in communities of color, where Taser use tends to be disproportionately high. Many people, particularly from the mental health community, voiced concerns about accidental deaths due to Taser use.
“I’m a great-grandma with a heart murmur," said Terrrie Frye, "and I wonder if the police will be able to recognize that when we’re all protesting the budget cuts that will result from these Tasers.”
*This post has been updated from an earlier version.