San Francisco police commissioners voted 4-3 late Friday night in support of a plan to arm all city police officers with Tasers following a raucous six and a half-hour hearing that was at one point shut down and relocated to another room in response to audience protests.
The vote means the department will move to develop a policy for the conducted energy devices, commonly known by the brand name Taser.
However, an amendment by Commissioner Robert Hirsch will delay implementation until the department’s new use of force policy has been in effect a full two years in December of 2018.
Commission President Julius Turman and Commissioners Petra DeJesus and Bill Ong Hing, all of whom were appointed by the Board of Supervisors rather than the mayor, voted against the policy and spoke out strongly against the move.
Turman said the department was making great strides in changing its culture, implementing a new use of force policy, increasing the number of officers trained in crisis intervention and improving community relations:
“Now is not the right time to do this. … This is going to derail the progress we are making. … Please commissioners, do not do this.”
Turman added he felt the commission should revisit the issue in a year.
Commissioner Joe Marshall, however, dismissed arguments about timing:
“When the department was not progressing it was not a good time to have them, when the department is progressing it is not a good time to have them. … What I heard is that people just don’t like Tasers, and for a lot of people it will never be the time to have them.”
The decision marks a major victory for the police department and for Police Chief Bill Scott.
Police in San Francisco have been lobbying to be allowed to use the devices for more than 10 years as a less lethal alternative to firearms, but the commission has previously been deterred by stiff community opposition. Opponents argue the devices are unsafe and fear they will be used as another weapon against the vulnerable and disenfranchised.
The department renewed its efforts this year however under the leadership of Scott, who took over in January. The effort also has the backing this time of a set of 272 U.S. Department of Justice recommendations for department reform issued in October last year, which include a call for the department to adopt Tasers.
Friday’s commission hearing was the culmination of a process launched earlier this year with the creation of a task force to develop a potential policy for the use of conducted energy devices. Two meetings were also held in September to gather public comment.
Scott, who previously served with the Los Angeles Police Department where Tasers are in use, acknowledged that they pose a risk of injury or death, but said studies show they reduce the risk of injury overall to both subjects and officer. He noted that they also allow officers to maintain more distance from suspects than other options.
“I strongly believe as the chief of police that our officers need CEDs” Scott said, calling them “part of a comprehensive range of less lethal force options.”
Those speaking at the hearing, however, were largely opposed, with many speakers citing the high cost of Tasers, which according to a budget and legislative analyst report could cost as much as $8 million up front as well as annual costs for training, replacement and legal liability.
Others cited studies showing they are disproportionately used against minorities and the mentally ill and questions around their reliability, as well as a general distrust of police.
Human Rights Commission executive director Sheryl Evan Davis told the commission in a summary of public feedback:
“Many said it doesn’t matter whether police have guns or Tasers, it was going to be bad for them either way.”
A UCSF study presented to the commission also indicates that in their first year of use, Tasers may actually increase the rate of sudden deaths and police shootings, although those numbers appear to later subside.
Those speaking against included representatives of the State Bar and the Coalition on Homelessness, as well as Supervisor Sandra Fewer.
Fewer said it would be shortsighted for the department to put its resources into Tasers when it has not implemented most of the other recommendations from the Department of Justice and is still working to improve training on deescalation practices:
“It is irresponsible to authorize the use of a weapon that escalates violence without having conducted intensive training in deescalation first.”
The hearing was brought to a halt shortly after the start of public comment after members of the public began shouting and chanting in defense of Maria Cristina Gutierrez, a former “Frisco Five” hunger striker who played a role in the downfall of former police Chief Greg Suhr, when she kept speaking past her allotted time.
Audience members convened an impromptu public meeting of their own, chanting and taking turns speaking out against the use of Tasers, until the meeting was moved to a different hearing room, sending the crowd pouring upstairs and leaving many left waiting outside while the hearing resumed inside.
The maneuver drew angry protests from a number of speakers, but Turman refused to allow more than a few people back inside at a time during the lengthy public comment period. The move prompted Commissioner Petra DeJesus to leave the room to stand with audience members outside in what she said was a protest at their treatment.
Turman said in response to one complaint:
“We had to switch rooms because people won’t let us hear what is being said, it is disruptive. … Let us hear what people have to say. Of course I take everything people say seriously but I have to hear it.”
DeJesus said the commission had “turned a deaf ear” to community concerns:
“There’s something wrong with this process, I think it was designed to keep people out. … I think it’s a shame for this commission to even consider voting on this.”