Dramatic scene unfolds as commissioner considers tie-breaking Taser vote

Activists disrupt the San Francisco Police Commission meeting on Nov. 3 at City Hall. Photo by J.P. Dobrin

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Robert Hirsch, one of the newest police commissioners and a mayoral appointee, was considered the swing vote in the decision whether to arm the San Francisco Police Department with Tasers.

Hirsch, a lawyer who had long been a hearing officer in complaints against the police, had said earlier that he was concerned about the SFPD first implementing reform and de-escalation tactics. Taser opponents also argued that the SFPD needed more time for reform.  

Any attempt to persuade Hirsch, however, quickly lost focus. Five speakers into the public hearing, the meeting erupted into an hour-long delay, which started when activist Maria Cristina Gutierrez refused to yield the mic after her two minutes were up. She continued to speak as Julius Turman, president of the commission, repeatedly called for the “next speaker, please!”

A group of sheriff’s deputies positioned in the front of the room closed in on the 75-year-old grandmother, who is also a member of the Frisco 5, a group that began with a 2016 hunger strike that helped to undo Police Chief Greg Suhr and has lately grown — now they’re called the Frisco 500. Unfazed by the deputies moving in on her, Gutierrez went on.  

“Don’t touch her,” sympathizers of Gutierrez shouted at the deputies. “Don’t touch her!”

“The black and brown community are being terrorized by the police,” Gutierrez went on.”They need to be able to speak in here like the other experts … ”

“Next speaker! Next speaker, please!” Turman called out as he tried to speak over her.

“Let her talk,” shouted one, And then it became a chorus. “Let her talk, let her talk.”

A man dressed in black with a matching bandana around his neck burst down the center aisle, but was held back by Darby Thomas of the Democratic Socialists of America.

And then Turman had had enough. He ordered the room cleared. The microphones were turned off and the rest of the commissioners left the room. The activists continued to speak anyway, holding for the next hour what one called “a people’s meeting.” It was filled with testimony that would be repeated an hour later, two flights up in Room 400, where the commissioners permitted five speakers at a time to enter the room.

The first four speakers advocated for Tasers. They were followed by 40 who spoke out against Tasers. Most were from the Democratic Socialists and Frisco 500, but others were young San Francisco natives from the Bayview and Tenderloin neighborhoods — the populations that many felt would be most affected by Tasers.

Hirsch had said that he was concerned about the disparity in how police treated African Americans, and he had decided to join the commission to be part of the solution.  

“I’ve had interactions lately with the police, several in a row, that have been much more positive,” Tami Bryant, a Western Addition resident said, “so I feel like there is a culture change coming and I feel like things are improving and they are getting the message.”

She and others wanted more time for that change to develop.

As commissioners began to deliver their final statements, things were looking good for the activists — who had stayed for more than six hours. The three commissioners appointed by the Board of Supervisors appeared to be ready to reject Tasers. The mayor’s appointees — Thomas Mazzucco and Joe Marshall, appointed by Gavin Newsom, and Sonia Melara and Hirsch, by appointed by Ed Lee, had the majority. And, while most were expected to vote in favor of Tasers, Hirsch still seemed moveable.

“The goal is to use as little force as possible,” Hirsch said, pointing to a recent report that showed the SFPD’s use of force was down this year.  

“I think we should let this play out further,” he went on, “to let these use of force techniques and policies become a part of the SFPD’s DNA in a way that they aren’t yet, but are apparently moving that way.”

Those concerns were folded into a resolution to approve Tasers. The resolution says SFPD won’t deploy Tasers until December 2018. That gives the department two years to let its use-of-force training, which includes de-escalation techniques, to sink in.

“Aye,” he voted on the resolution.

“Sellout!” a woman shouted from the audience, as boos filled the room.

Police Chief Bill Scott didn’t move for several minutes, his chin firmly supported by his left fist.

Someone pointed out that all the “yes” votes were by Mayoral appointees. Chants of “F– Ed Lee!” filled the hallway.

“Shame, shame, shame,” the activists chanted from outside, banging on the walls.

They weren’t defeated nor deflated. The $8 million dollar price tag for Taser adoption could be fought at the budget level with the Board of Supervisors.

Hirsch left City Hall with an escort of several officers. It was just past midnight. Activists started jeering and someone yelled out, “You that afraid of us?”

Kaitlin Benz contributed to this report.

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