Shared from the 11/5/2017 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Stun guns approved for police next year

S.F. panel’s close decision follows heated opposition

The San Francisco Police Department can begin equipping its officers with Taser electroshock weapons in December 2018, the Police Commission said in voting on an issue that has been debated and rejected in the city for 13 years.

After an almost seven-hour meeting interrupted by a raucous protest that led to a lock-down of City Hall, commissioners narrowly passed a measure late Friday that the police officers union and several past police chiefs have long supported in the face of strong opposition from activists and critics of the department.

While members of the department’s top brass remained straight-faced during the hard-fought, 4-3 vote in favor of the plan, activists outside the chamber began chanting, “Shame! Shame!” — a sentiment echoed by Commissioner Petra DeJesus, a longtime Taser opponent.

“I think it’s incredibly sad in this age of Trump and Black Lives Matter, when our own officers are involved in shootings of minorities and mentally ill, that this commission is seriously considering voting for Tasers after all these years,” she said. “I was hoping this commission would do the right thing.”

San Francisco has one of the last major police forces in the country without the devices, in part because of the opposition from community members concerned about the weapons’ lethality and the potential for abuse.

But those in favor of Tasers, including Police Chief Bill Scott, who took command in January amid controversy over a series of officer-involved shootings, say officers need less-lethal alternatives to firearms and Tasers provide such an option.

Scott praised the commission’s decision in a statement Saturday.

Conductive energy devices “are a sound, less-lethal force option that complement the de-escalation principles and techniques our officers practice every day,” the chief said. He thanked the commissioners and their staffs for months of analysis and discussion on the issue, and the residents who participated in work groups and gave “thoughtful, articulate” feedback.

Scott promised to gather input from doctors and other experts and to draft a solid policy on training, supervision and accountability before deploying the weapons.

On Friday, Commission Vice President Thomas Mazzucco cited a U.S. Department of Justice report last year that said San Francisco “should strongly consider” giving officers stun guns.

“In conversations with many people from the Department of Justice, they couldn’t believe we didn’t have these,” Mazzucco said. “They believe it will save lives.”

The report was the result of a six-month review of the city police force after officers fatally shot Mario Woods in December 2015. Woods, a stabbing suspect who police say was carrying a knife, was shot while shuffling slowly along a Bayview neighborhood street, after efforts to subdue him with beanbag rounds and pepper spray failed.

The killing is still under investigation, but after the shooting the Police Commission revised the department’s use-of-force policy to put more of an emphasis on the sanctity of life and deploying de-escalation tactics, and using force as a last resort.

“De-escalation has been a topic that the San Francisco Police Department has taken very seriously,” Scott said Friday as he made his case for Tasers. “The reality is there are times when de-escalation does not work, and officers have to use force as safely as possible. We have a duty to reduce injuries to residents and officers when these type of incidents occur.”

But Commission President L. Julius Turman, who voted against the measure, said equipping officers with Tasers “will derail the progress we have made.” Commissoner Bill Ong Hing, who also voted no, said he had concerns about the studies that found officers use these weapons disproportionately on communities of color — communities with whom the department has been working to rebuild trust as part of the reform efforts.

“It’s the wrong message to be sending to the community to adopt Tasers right now,” Hing said. “It’ll put us so far back in terms of the achievements that this department has made with respect to credibility.”

While Friday’s vote did not delve into policy for Taser use, Scott has said he wants all sworn officers to be equipped with the weapon. As part of the vote, commissioners said officers could not begin using the weapons until December 2018, after the revised use-of-force policy has been in place for two years.

Commissioner Sonia Melara said she received about 100 letters in support of Tasers from community members, and a handful supporters spoke at the meeting. But dozens more spoke in opposition. Activists against Tasers shut down the meeting for about an hour and prompted deputies to lock down City Hall.

“Please try (a Taser) on yourself before you make the decision,” activist Maria Cristina Gutierrez said just before she exceeded the two-minute limit for each speaker during public comment and Turman called the meeting into recess.

The activists remained in the room, chanting and making speeches against the weapons, as the commissioners filed out and reconvened in another room.

Turman called the meeting back into session without informing the community members still in the original room and reopened public comment by bringing in five people at a time who were “not involved in the disruptive behavior.”

Opponents have shifted their focus from past deaths linked to the devices to their effectiveness. Critics have brought in experts to speak to commissioners about Taser failure rates — and what that means for an officer and a subject in an escalating, perilous encounter.

Many balked at the overall cost estimate. The low estimate for obtaining Tasers — in a scenario in which some but not all officers get them — was $2.8 million, which includes the devices and officer training, instructor training, testing and defibrillators. Ongoing, annual costs for the low estimate came out to just over $400,000.

The high estimate, based on equipping and training all sworn officers, was $8 million in one-time costs and annual costs of about $750,000.

The analysis did not include the cost of litigation that could come as a result of injuries or deaths because of an officer’s Taser use.

DeJesus was noticeably absent for much of the meeting, choosing instead to stand outside with the community members not allowed into the room.

“This commission has turned a deaf ear to the communities that are most affected by this,” she said. “Shame on all of you.”

Joe Marshall, the longest serving commissioner, commented that he has served on the commission through all 13 years of proposals regarding Tasers.

He said he supported the chief, in part because he had learned there was no “right time” to equip officers with Tasers and that after 13 years, it was time for a decision.

“People just don’t like Tasers,” Marshall said. “I heard the statement that it will never be the time to have them. Time does not matter to me. There is no ‘the time.’ You have to decide whether to have them or not.”

Chronicle staff writer

Rachel Swan contributed to this report.

Vivian Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: vho@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @VivianHo

“There are times when de-escalation does not work, and officers have to use force as safely as possible. We have a duty to reduce injuries.”
Police Chief Bill Scott

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