SF Human Rights director advises against Tasers – for now

A young activist debates the need for Tasers with police commissioner Sonia E. Melara at a community meeting at City College. Photo by Lydia Chávez

All during the fall, the Human Rights Commission held community meetings with hundreds of San Francisco residents to hear from them on whether the San Francisco Police Commission should approve Tasers for the San Francisco Police Department.

For Sheryl Davis, the executive director of the Human Rights Commission, what struck her from the meetings was the inescapable fear youth hold about encounters with the police.

Many of the more than 60 youths who attended a focus group held in Potrero Hill said they were “resigned to the fact that something negative would happen if they encountered the police.”

The pervasiveness of this feeling lead Davis to recommend to the seven-member Police Commission that they vote against Tasers. She will present the report and its findings to the Police Commission this Friday when the Commission may make its final decision on arming the force with Tasers.

Davis advises in the report that San Francisco wait to decide on Tasers until after the SFPD has made “sustained and substantive progress” on the 272 recommendations from the Department of Justice.

“To make a decision about CED use, without addressing the issues that arose from these discussions, would be a disservice to the process started for the overall implementation of DOJ recommendations,” Davis concludes in the report.

On the youth’s trepidation around the police, she writes, “I hope that SFPD is committed to addressing these perceptions and fears.”

The report was prepared for the Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission in the runup to the decision on Tasers.

In it, the Davis offers a comprehensive view of the community meetings.  The Human Rights Commission, comprised of 11 members, has not taken a vote on the issue.

“Why do we need more weapons now, when crime is decreasing? Why not focus more on community?” One person wrote on an index card at a community meeting on Tasers in September.

“There are enough weapons to use against US.” Someone else wrote, writing in capital letters for emphasis.

Others, but not nearly as many, wrote that Tasers could protect people in danger, or asked, “Would Tasers have saved Mario Woods?”

The San Francisco Human Rights Commission compiled these comments, along with a quantitative breakdown of the questions, issues and concerns raised at two city-wide community meetings and three smaller focus groups held in September and October.

The overwhelming majority – 87 percent – of those who attended the two meetings were against the SFPD acquiring Tasers. Most objected because they believed the weapons, touted as a less-lethal option for cops, are dangerous.

Many specifically said that Tasers ran against the practice of de-escalation, others cited statistics of Taser-related deaths and injuries.

For the 12 percent of attendees who supported Tasers, the most common refrain was that cops needed less-lethal options. Others believed the police would be able to prevent crime more effectively with the electrical devices.

How much the report of these meetings will influence how the Police Commissioners vote is unclear.

At the second community meeting held at City College on 19 September, President of the Commission Julius Turman assured the crowd that “their voices and opinions” would reach the Commission.

The Police Commission will hold a special meeting to discuss Tasers on 3 November at 5 p.m. at City Hall in Room 250.

An earlier version of this story reported in the headline that the Human Rights Commission made the recommendation to wait on Tasers. This was in error. The recommendation was made by Sheryl Davis, the executive director of the Human Rights Commission. The commissioners have taken no vote on the issue. 

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