The benefits of the electronic weapons have been over promised, their detriments have been underreported. What could go wrong?
In the year 2010, it was revealed that this city’s crime lab, far from being the sleek realm of 3-D holograms and technicians outfitted in white coats and four-inch heels you’d see on TV, was in fact infested with feral cats. There were too many damn cats and not enough drugs—a year earlier, a lab tech retired after being caught snorting the evidence. In 2011 the San Francisco Police Department announced a major technological advance: Its officers would now have e-mail accounts. In the years that followed, they even received mobile phones.
This city’s police department, then, is neither particularly tech savvy nor an early adopter. To wit, San Francisco remains the sole large municipality in the United States to resist arming its officers with Tasers, a full two decades after departments nationwide began buying them up. We’ve been arguing about whether to give cops electronic weapons since before they had electronic mail. We’ve been debating this since before YouTube was created; in the interregnum more than 1 million Taser videos have been uploaded.
The battle lines are well-drawn: The powerful and bellicose Police Officers Association has made obtaining Tasers an Ahab-like obsession, and they have strong support in this quest from Mayor Ed Lee. Bill Scott is the latest in a long line of police chiefs to lobby for Tasers, a clarion call that, reliably, emanates after SFPD officers put yet another erratic, substance-addled and/or mentally ill person into the hospital or morgue. Meanwhile, among the city’s left-leaning stalwarts, Tasers are one more thing to keep out of San Francisco, along with freeways, chain stores, and high-rise pied-à-terres.
Tasers have become, for each side, a symbol of the other’s intransigence. Either getting Tasers or staving them off has, for the warring parties, long since transcended a policy debate and become, simply, about getting a win. You don’t have to gaze toward Washington, D.C. to know this is no way to run a railroad.
In the next several months, the Police Commission will likely decide whether, at long last, to acquiesce and begin sending cops out with electroshock weapons. This has, for years, been as predictable an endeavor as Bullwinkle’s hapless attempts to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Now, however, the momentum appears to be with the Taser proponents. A Department of Justice probe in the wake of the December 2015 Mario Woods shooting urged the city to strongly consider bringing in Tasers (city officials take pains to note that these were the wishes of the Obama-era DOJ, not the current iteration overseen by a racist elf). In January, commission president Suzy Loftus, a Taser skeptic, resigned from the board—handing Mayor Lee a shot to name a replacement who saw things his way. That appointee, Robert Hirsch, confirms that Lee talked him up regarding Tasers. That’s about all he’s willing to confirm, though. “All I’m going to say is that we had a discussion about it and my mind is still open. When the time comes to vote, I will make the smartest decision I can.”
Well, good. Because this isn’t a matter of rote politics and Tasers aren’t symbols. They are weapons. They are costly. They are dangerous. They are failure prone. And they are, simultaneously, both remarkably simple yet remarkably complex.
Barring unforeseen lunacy, condoms fail roughly one time out of 50. The new trams Muni invested $1.2 billion in are designed to roll 59,000 miles between failures (we’ll see). Every day, some 20,000 passenger jets take off and land safely across North America, with decades between disasters—perhaps the closest humanity has ever come to touching perfection.
Tasers are not in this pantheon; they are closer on the spectrum to the Ford Pinto. And when they fail, like the Pinto, things blow up. Cops get hurt. Civilians die.
Retired Oakland cop Michael Leonesio has analyzed tens of thousands of Tasers—and, right out of the box, he’s found one in five fail. But this gets worse: Among the four in five that pass his initial 10-point inspection, an additional 15 percent still fail, emitting to much or too little electricity—or none at all. “If you had a desk lamp that failed this often, if you had a car that failed this often, you’d be out of business,” says Leonesio, who oversaw the Oakland Police Department’s Taser policy and deployment. “This is unique. This is concerning.” (Leonesio hasn’t done much testing on the latest crop of Tasers, so it remains to be seen how tetchy they are. Following a bevy of lawsuits, however, they pack significantly less punch than their forbears—prompting questions about their ability to drop suspects, and rendering the data the police commission is sifting through out-of-date).
You’re asking a lot of a cop to slap a weapon in his or her hand that will fail to work one trigger-pull out of three. This does not fit into the made-for-TV perception of futuristic crime labs and phasers-set-to-stun. And yet, even when the weapon successfully sparks up after the trigger is pulled, there’s no guarantee it will incapacitate a subject. A Taser is not a phaser; it requires two darts on wires to both make contact with the target’s skin, and complete the circuit. Pulling this off is easier said than done. A Taser is most likely to succeed if you’re trying to incapacitate a scantily clad, muscular person built like The Rock who is, conveniently, standing still. A fat person, a person wearing thick or loose clothing, a person who is moving around in an attempt to not be shot—all of these factors can foil a Taser.
In Los Angeles, where there are certainly a hell of a lot more scantily clad people resembling The Rock than up here, the LAPD found Tasers failed nearly half the time. This is scary data, considering what happens after a Taser fails. The SFPD use-of-force policy, revamped after two decades in the wake of the Woods shooting, champions time, distance, cover, and de-escalation for officers confronting problematic individuals. A cop with a Taser, however, can contravene all of those.
She must expose herself, coming within seven-to-15 feet of a target subject behaving aggressively enough to warrant use of force. “What do you do,” posits Leonesio, “when you walk into a dark room and click the light switch and there’s a quick flash of light and then darkness?” Naturally, you click the switch again. And again. And again. Officers he’s observed in the field and in training do the same thing when the Taser conks out. “That’s just what we do. And if you’re an average human under stress, in the three, four, five seconds, the guy is all over you.”
Cavalier—or even not-so-cavalier—use of a Taser can result in a cop being attacked and/or a subject being killed in a situation where adherence to the department’s time-distance-cover-de-escalation mantra may well have led to a bloodless outcome. Even if the Taser does work, not having ample backup on the scene to take the subject into custody leads to scenarios in which cops jolt suspects repeatedly—which is, as you’d expect, terrible and dangerous. Far from being a magic wand, Tasers require scads of devoted officers solely to handle technical matters, routine testing, and maintenance, along with reams of new policies and training for everyone.
And there’s the rub: The adoption of Tasers would require saddling the SFPD with heaps of new rules and procedures. But the shootings the POA and others claim would have been prevented—if only officers had Tasers—were, themselves, largely due to officers’ inability to follow rules and procedures. The SFPD, it turns out, isn’t so hot with rules and procedures: Cops here deride the martinets at the LAPD as by-the-book automatons and value the individualism and initiative granted to them in the SFPD culture. And that’s great—until the weapon comes out of the holster and the trigger is pulled and, no matter what happens next, someone’s life will change forever. “If the SFPD wants to do this properly,” sums up Leonesio, “it is going to require a cultural change.”
Good luck to the police commissioners. Providing a shock to the system of San Francisco’s most sclerotic department may be beyond the capabilities of even a Taser.