London Breed’s evolving position on Tasers

Supervisor London Breed alongside Joshua Arce and others at the neighborhood preference press conference at 1950 Mission St. on Wednesday, August 31, 2016. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

She was against them. Now she’s for them. But a police union-backed ballot initiative may render her measured stance meaningless.


Bill Ong Hing is shocked. Yes, pun intended. But he’s not surprised.

The veteran immigration and social justice attorney has turned out to be one of the Police Commission’s most skeptical members when it comes to arming San Francisco’s finest with Tasers. But, on the night of his confirmation by the Board of Supervisors in 2016, that was apparently in doubt. To London Breed at least.

The board president chided him for seemingly not being anti-Taser enough.

“The conversation around Tasers and [your] expressed interest in seeing the possibility of Tasers — you know, again, that surprised me,” a disappointed Breed told Hing before going on to support his affirmed anti-Taser challenger for the position.

Hing was confused. “I don’t think I endorsed Tasers,” he responded to Breed, explaining that, in prior testimony, he’d outlined acceptable hypothetical situations for Taser use, even while opposing their adoption — a position Breed forced him to  state unambiguously (“Do you support them or oppose them?” “I am opposed to them.”).

That’s the position Breed asked Hing to define. That’s the position she expressed, in print, in subsequent months. (“We’re going to put another tool in our officers’ hands? It’s not a good thing to do.”) But when Hing and others opened up the newspaper on Monday, they discovered it’s not the position that defines Breed now.

In a shift distinguishing her from so-called progressive opponents for mayor — and her own recent positions — Breed expressed support for arming our police with Tasers, via an essay on Medium.

“If tasers — with thorough training and oversight — can stop one shooting, then I support tasers,” she wrote, adhering to the Police Commission’s current position of a gradual rolling out of the less-lethal electronic weapons. “I will fund their implementation. And NO ONE will be more vigilant than me in making sure they are implemented and used appropriately.” (Bold is Breed’s, not ours)

Breed’s campaign spokeswoman, Tara Moriarty, tells us that the candidate’s position has “evolved.”   

“The DOJ came back with 272 recommendations, one of which was for the SFPD to implement Tasers,” Breed e-mailed Mission Local. (The actual language in the report calls for the SFPD to make an “informed decision” and “strongly consider” using Tasers).

“After extensive conversations with the San Francisco Police Commission, Chief [Bill] Scott and others in the Police Department, and community advocates, I support the DOJ’s recommendation.”

Hing, who was forced by Breed to put his position on Tasers succinctly, now puts his position on Breed succinctly: “I am disappointed.”

But, again, not surprised. Over the past several years, the public has grown more and more disgusted by police shootings and cavalier use of force — but, at the same time, Tasers as a panacea has become a more and more untenable storyline. Tasers are costly, dangerous and failure-prone. They do not work between one-third and one-half of the time when the trigger is pulled — period — and, even when they do work, are not necessarily conducive to chillier climates like San Francisco’s, where people dress in layers (numerous authorities have cast doubt on the notion that a Taser would have subdued Mario Woodsdue to his light “puffy jacket” — which was hardly a Michelin Man-like getup).

Tasers’ correct deployment also does not necessarily jibe with the SFPD’s adopted mantra of taking time and keeping one’s distance from an agitated suspect. To effectively use a Taser, an officer must place him or herself within a few meters of a potentially dangerous person, often out in the open, then fire a weapon with an extremely decent chance of not working.

Retired Oakland cop Michael Leonesio, an expert in Taser policy, told us in August that the SFPD — which finds itself in a quagmire because of its longstanding inability to follow its extant rules and regulations — would be subject to many, many more of them if it adopts Tasers.  

Regardless, they poll through the roof.

A January Chamber of Commerce analysis found some 76 percent of San Franciscans favor putting Tasers in the hands of our police.

Yet the denizens of the Fillmore and Western Addition, where Breed was raised and which she now represents, have not come out in droves to support Tasers. Quite the opposite. The same goes for folks in the Mission, Bayview and other remaining minority enclaves where residents figure to be the San Franciscans most likely to find themselves on the business end of this city’s future Taser policy.

But people on the Westside are going to be pleased. Voters in the Sunset, the Richmond, the Marina — they’re going to be pumped. These are all the places a so-called moderate mayoral candidate like Breed needs to poll well.

And yet, Tasers are far more popular than any mayoral candidate. And, come June, they’re on the ballot, too.

Putting Tasers in the holsters of San Francisco police officers has long been a white whale and raison d’être for this city’s bellicose police union. Unhappy with the gradual rollout agreed to by the Police Commission, the Police Officers Association (POA) went the signature-gathering route and will, this June, let the voters decide whether to arm the SFPD by year’s end.

If the Chamber poll is to be believed — along with every other poll undertaken in this city, ever — it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen.

“I think the POA measure will pass,” says former supervisor David Campos, who is also a former police commissioner. “That’s why London can do this.”

In other words, she can offer support for the Police Commission’s methodical, logical, split-the-baby approach, which will appeal to this city’s more moderate voters (most voters, actually, and certainly most of the ones inclined to vote for Breed) — despite the fact the Police Officers Association proposition is positioned for an easy victory, relegating that nuanced approach on Tasers to the dustbin.

The POA ballot measure figures to supplant not only the civilian authority of the Police Commission but department head reviews from the chief of police. It would not appear to subject officers firing off Tasers to the department’s established use-of-force protocols, and has loose language determining exactly when an officer can use a Taser. What’s more, the measure would lock in funding for Tasers — millions of dollars a year — as a guaranteed set-aside.

“The DOJ says we need more oversight, not less. But that’s not what the ballot measure says,” notes Petra DeJesus, one of the Police Commission’s most pronounced Taser skeptics.

The POA measure, continues Hing, “leaves a lot of discretion to the officer,” when determining acceptable situations in which to use a Taser. “That’s a bad idea. This ballot initiative is dangerous. It sets up use of Tasers improperly — even beyond what the manufacturer suggests.”

But, again, don’t expect that to matter much to the voters.

“If I become mayor,” Breed wrote us, “I will be ready to work with the POA, the Police Commission, officers and the community to ensure that tasters are implemented with robust oversight and training.” This ballot measure, however, would reframe the parameters of that negotiation to ones dictated by the POA, a longtime, zealous advocate for Tasers, and an equally zealous opponent of the department’s revamping of its antiquated use-of-force policies.

“I have not taken a position on the POA-backed taser measure,” Breed confirmed.  

Hmm. Shocking.

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7 Comments

  1. GREG SMITH

    One of the problems with both lawyers and progressives is they don’t understand that “perfect is the enemy of good enough” If it’s true, “they do not work between one-third and one-half of the time” those are pretty good odds when your alternative is being shot. Mario Woods took five “bean bag rounds” including, I understand, a 40mm in the groin and kept coming. Maybe, even probably, with the jacket, a Taser wouldn’t have worked. I really wish we had a chance to find out.

    • John Crew

      No, w/ Woods, the alternative was NOT getting shot. The alternative was de-escalation, patience — no force at all was necessary at the time they shot him dead. Look at the video. He was stumbling along the wall.. took one step in the direction of the semi-circle of officers who’d completely surrounded him and was shot dead even though he posed no imminent threat to the officers in that moment. SFPOA claimed those officers “acted with great restraint” . Nonsense. All they had to do was to walk backwards with him.. not escalate. I don’t know if he “kept coming” after earlier bean bag rounds but he was NOT coming at all.. not being physically aggressively.. not right then… not when he was shot.

      It’s a false narrative to pretend tasers are an alternative to firearms. That’s what SFPOA wants you to believe because they continue to resist the de-escalation reforms and continue to view non-physical resistance to an order.. mere non-compliance.. as something that justifies using force.. even taser shocks… even when dealing w/ a mentally ill or drug intoxicated subject who poses no imminent threat to themselves or others. Their only focus is on alternative forms of force (and maximizing officers’ discretion to use them so they will never be held accountable) rather than realizing that, with proper tactics, sometimes.. often.. no force is necessary at all . That’s 21st Century Policing.. and SFPOA hates it. Like their Trump-endorsing colleagues at the Fraternal Order of Police, the SFPOA wants SFPD to remain in the “good old days” where cops could behave like warriors rather than guardians and where unnecessary physical aggressiveness was celebrated in police culture and normalized in police policies and tactics. They want Trump-policing.. w/ no candy ass DOJ Civil Rights or COPS reforms, no duty to de-escalate, no modernization or professionalism.. and, by the way, right now they want another whopping pay raise too.

  2. marc salomon

    What’s this then about the commuter hired help going over the heads of the stockholders, Board and staff of the Municipal Corporation to set their own policy?

    We need a state and local Hatch Act so that the hired help remembers its place.

    • GREG SMITH

      Marc, I’ve always wondered if radical “progressives” didn’t like cops because of a perceived class bias. Specifically, that they wouldn’t be cops, couldn’t be cops, wouldn’t want their kids of grandkids to be cops or, God forbid want their kids or grandkids to marry cops. I’m starting to think I’m right. Oh by the way workers have a right to form unions and negotiate for better working conditions. In this case Tasers. You might read Rarum Novarum “The Rights of Capital and Labor” by Pope Leo XIII.

  3. Maybe supporting the students revolt against guns is the way to go right now. If we got rid of the guns would we need the tasers? If we got ICE out of California, Trump is thinking about it, would we be overrun by criminals as he claims? Do we need to spend more money on weapons that don’t work in a lot of circumstances? Let’s face it, this is a sales opportunity for the weapons industry. Sales of traditional weapons have gone down, so they are trying to selling tech like everyone else.

  4. Tasers are a valid non-lethal alternative for subduing an unruly suspect. They are not supposed to be a panacea, just an additional tool.

  5. Maria

    Investing money into SFPD instead of your schools, exposes your values.

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