By Brian Rinker
After a lengthy hearing on Feb. 23 the San Francisco Police Commission voted 6-1 in favor of interim Chief of Police Jeff Godown’s proposal to explore the use of all less lethal weapons, including the controversial Conductive Energy Device, also known as a stun gun.
The decision was reached at 11:30 p.m. after six hours of deliberation. The hearing was concerning all less lethal weapons, but the debate centered mostly on stun guns — their safety, how to use them effectively and why police officers may need an additional weapon.
“The use of force is never pretty,” Police Commission President Thomas Mazzucco said. Right now there is a significant gap in the SFPD’s arsenal, he said, and an intermediary weapon is needed between the baton and the firearm.
Police officers gave accounts of life threatening situations they said could have been prevented with a stun gun. Chuck Wexlar, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, presented a study completed in conjunction with the SFPD. Wexlar suggested guidelines and recommendations for using stun guns, such as officers wearing them on their weak draw side, and where and whom they could shoot.
However, most recommendations were contradicted by opponents with studies and expert testimony that said the majority of situations where stun guns would be beneficial were exactly the situations where guidelines prevented their use.
Mazzucco guaranteed the community that the misuse and abuses of stun guns would not happen with the SFPD, citing the department’s very low record of misconduct cases compared with departments in other major cities.
Conductive Energy Devices, including stun guns commonly referred to by the Taser brand name, are less lethal weapons intended to deliver an electrical charge sufficient to disrupt the subject’s central nervous system, enabling officers to subdue the individual with minimal injury to all involved, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study.
The weapons remain controversial because of the number of deaths and injuries resulting from the device, speakers at the Police Commission meeting said.
“My concern,” said Colleen Riveca of Homeless Youth Alliance, “is that the introduction of Tasers will change non-lethal situations that could be dealt with by de-escalation techniques, and that those situations will instead be dealt with by a potential lethal weapon – the Taser.”
San Francisco is one of the few cities of its size that doesn’t utilize stun guns as a less-lethal option.
“I’m not asking to arm the San Francisco Police Department with Tasers at this juncture of the debate,” Godown said. “I’m just asking for permission to go out and research the feasibility of a less lethal option that can be a substitute in some instances, under certain conditions for a firearm.”
Commissioner Petra DeJesus, the only Police Commission member to vote “no”, said the chief’s request “was a soft-pitch way of authorizing Tasers.” This was met with loud applause from the audience.
The commission gave Godown approval to research all the less lethal weapons and put together a pilot plan within 90 days. The implementation of the plan is contingent on another vote at end of the 90 days.
Last March the commission rejected a similar plan on stun guns proposed by former Police Chief George Gascón, fearing the misuse would disproportionately affect the mentally disabled.
Since then, San Francisco named a new police chief and two new commissioners. The commission has also recently established Crisis Intervention Training program based on the “Memphis Model.”
Memphis is one of the few cities refusing to use stun guns. The CIT program aims to teach de-escalation techniques to police officers, greatly reducing the number of situations that require the use of force.
“Let’s make one thing clear,” Mazzucco said. “We have separated the mental health issue from the Tasers. This commission has moved out into the forefront and unanimously accepted the Memphis Model. This hearing is not about the mental health community being Tased.”
Only one person during public comment said stun guns would be a good addition for the police department. About 40 community members testified against the use of stun guns.
SFPD used examples of officers involved in recent shootings as evidence that Tasers or other less lethal weapons were needed. In the end, Mazzucco played on the hearts of man.
“You know deep in your hearts that if we had a Taser, those people would still be alive,” he said.
Community members criticized the chief for not discussing the less lethal weapons with them. Cinthya Muñoz, of the grassroots community organization Just Cause/Causa Justa, cautioned the Chief and the Commission on how to deal with the community.
“Do talk to our communities, but don’t talk to them about what kind of gun you’re going to allow police officers to shoot them with.” Muñoz said. “They are communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by police brutality and the use of the Taser.”