August 3, 2012
Despite strong public opposition to their use, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr returned to the Police Commission Wednesday arguing for the adoption and use of Tasers by the police department.
A public outcry has so far prevented two previous attempts to introduce the less lethal electro-shock weapons..
The hearing was scheduled with extremely short public notice. Had it been announced more widely and with sufficient notice, many more would have attended.
A slide-show presentation on Tasers was presented by Clay Winn, VP OF Strategic Relations, Taser International – the sole source corporate supplier of the devices.
Suhr proposed to initially limit Taser deployment to Crises Intervention Team (CIT) officers – those who have been specially trained to respond to mental health crises encounters.
Many, including the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, have expressed strong concerns against this approach.
One of main concerns is that Tasers dangerously lowers the threshold in which force can be applied. This can undermine the verbal de-escalation strategies CIT officers have been trained to use. During a stressful mental health crises confrontation with a suspect, the easier solution may be more likely to be used. That is, an officer under duress and stress may be more likely to just zap and quickly end the confrontation.
There are also concerns about the health impacts of Tasers. These were presented by the testimony by Dr. Tseng, a UCSF cardiologist and researcher. He presented research on the effects of electrical shocks to the heart. He displayed research showing it can increase the risk of ventricular defibrillation. He said the risks were significant enough that every squad car carrying officers equipped with Tasers should also carry an Automatic Defibrillator. This expensive life-saving remedy, however, would not be available to officers on foot patrols nor away from their cars.
Dr. Tseng also expressed concerns about “usage creep.” This has already been demonstrated when Tasers have been used against citizens for not complying with a police order or who are just being verbally combative.
Even the Taser International representative, Clay Winn, said that the safest area to target is the suspect’s back or legs. The former is unlikely to be available and the latter is also a difficult target to strike. Given that police officers are trained to aim for a suspect’s center of mass, a leg strike is unlikely.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Police Commission asked the SFPD to work with Commissioners Angela Chan, Suzy Loftus and Julius Turman, the office of Citizen Complaints, plus consult with representatives of communities of color, the LGBT community and mental health professionals. They also asked this working group to review research on other “less lethal” alternatives. This subgroup is asked to report on their progress monthly and then deliver their recommendations in 90 days. The first report will be at the next Police Commission meeting on September 5th, 2012.