Opponents of a proposal to arm San Francisco police with Tasers turned out in force at a public meeting Tuesday night as The City’s police department prepares for another attempt to win approval to use the devices.
The meeting at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the first of two scheduled on the proposal this month, marked the start of what is likely to be a contentious public process leading to an expected vote by the police commission on a policy for the use of the “conducted energy devices.”
San Francisco is one of only a handful of cities to eschew the use of Tasers.
Police officials have made numerous attempts to win support for their use over the years, arguing that they would provide another non-lethal option and help reduce police shootings.
They have never succeeded, however, due to overwhelming opposition from community activists who argue that Tasers pose a potential danger to vulnerable populations including the mentally ill, those on drugs and pregnant women.
With a new chief installed this year, however, and the backing of a Department of Justice recommendation, the department is trying again.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, those attending were divided up into working groups of around 20 people and asked to discuss the pros and cons of Tasers.
The responses were overwhelmingly in the “con” column, with attendees citing the risks, costs and reported lack of effectiveness of the devices.
Many expressed frustration that the issue was even up for debate again, after repeated rejections and said they feared the public meetings were designed to give the illusion of public input.
“This is a way to deflect opposition,” San Francisco resident Harry Pariser said.
A working group headed by Police Commissioner Sonia Melara has developed a draft policy governing the use of Tasers, but some members of the working group expressed discomfort with the process.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, served on a task force last year on a revised use of force policy and said the Taser policy process, by comparison, had been more rushed and had allowed for less real input from community groups.
The process did not allow task force members to consider whether Tasers should be allowed at all, but only let them comment on a proposed policy developed by police, she said.
“I’ve been a part of a ton of different community processes and I’ve never been in such a bad one.”
Despite that experience, Friedenbach said she believed the votes on the commission were split and it was not yet clear which way it would ultimately go.
Police Chief William Scott in a statement has acknowledged the concerns around the use of Tasers, including the potential for fatalities and studies showing they are used disproportionately against people of color and those with mental health issues. However, he said studies also showed the devices can significantly reduce injuries for both police officers and members of the public.
“I think the overall body of data is overwhelming that CEDs would give the SFPD a less lethal force option to help us achieve our goal of preserving the sanctity of life.”
A second public meeting on the use of Tasers is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 19 at the Student Union Cafe at the City College of San Francisco Phelan Campus.