Taser Wars: Police Commission gamely moves to vote on stun gun policy likely to be undone by ballot measure

Residents lined up to speak before the Police Commission approved Tasers last fall. Photo by Lydia Chávez

At some point on Wednesday, the meeting’s going to careen off the rails. “Shit-show breaks out” isn’t a Police Commission agenda item, but it might as well be.

Various members of the public will recriminate one other and members of the government; members of the government will recriminate various members of the public and one other. Demonstrations will break out. That guy who shows up and sings during public comment will show up and sing during public comment. It’s going to be a God-damn mess.

Taser policy discussions are catnip for unruly, high-tension meetings. No surprise there.

Will we get any new policy out of it all? Maybe. Will it matter? Maybe not.

A decade of wrangling over whether to arm SFPD cops with Tasers was ostensibly resolved in November when, by a 4-3 Police Commission vote, Taser advocates won out.

And then the troubles started anew.

Regular readers of this column know that the Police Officers Association, the city’s bellicose police union, has gathered voter signatures and introduced a June Taser ballot measure. It would arm the cops with stun guns and allow them to shoot off the weapons in a manner the POA approves of (more on that momentarily), and neuter the Police Commission and even the chief from getting involved in further crafting and enforcing policy.

In short, the reactionary police union that has fought any notion of SFPD “reform” every step of the way has decided to execute an end-run around the collaborative process and use a ballot measure to arm its officers as it sees fit, oversee their use of a new weapon as it sees fit, and even fund the acquisition of that new weapon at a level it sees fit.  

Last week, Chief Bill Scott came out publicly against this measure, which would undermine his authority and, he says, be “the antithesis” of the collaborative process urged by the Department of Justice to put the SFPD on the right track. For this affront, the POA referred to him as “an abject failure” and a man with “no mind of his own.”

And this Wednesday, under the great shadow of the POA Taser measure, the Police Commission will likely vote on the end result of that collaborative process — a 14-page draft policy.

Here, with merciful brevity, are some salient differences between the draft policy the commission will be voting on Wednesday and the POA-backed measure you’ll be voting on in June:

  • The collaboratively generated policy sanctions Taser use on “violently resisting” subjects. The POA measure would allow “actively resisting” people to be Tased — a considerably lower standard that could include people who are “bracing” or merely tensing up.
  • The collaboratively generated policy would require de-escalation tactics be used prior to a Taser. But the POA measure would allow for Tasers in “potentially dangerous” situations. The POA measure would allow for Taser use “only when lower levels of force are either ineffective or impractical” — but never seems to consider that, perhaps, use of force may not be the most effective route in the first place. That’s what de-escalation is about.  
  • Perhaps most consequentially, the collaboratively generated policy could be altered expediently as best practices are updated or as problems arise. But the POA measure can only be altered by a 4/5 majority in the Board of Supervisors or another vote of the people. As we noted last week, an inability to quickly alter Taser policies could have truly lethal consequences.

Gary Delagnes, the longtime president of the POA and now a consultant, told us the commission forced the union’s hand by dragging its feet. “There was a policy in their hands in 2017 that was vetted by all parties,” he says.

But “all parties” don’t agree with that.

“That’s inaccurate,” counters David Rizk, an attorney on the San Francisco Bar Association’s criminal justice reform task force. His group, among others, “did not vet” the 2017 policy. They not only disagreed with it, but felt their input had been minimized.

And his group — among others — is still not thrilled with the policy set for a vote on Wednesday, which it feels is too permissive of Taser use.

What a Hobson’s choice the Police Commission faces, then. Its members can either vote for a proposal no one is quite happy with (and some people are very unhappy with) or continue arguing and re-arranging the deck chairs in the face of the POA’s measure — which makes a mockery of both police reform and the electoral process.

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When the POA gathered signatures and turned them in in February, Delagnes told the Chronicle that if the Police Commission passed a sensible Taser policy, the POA would pull its measure. But that’s not possible; once signatures are turned into the city, the measure can’t be pulled. Delagnes is a veteran of the signature-gathering process and he should know this.

He told us that the POA may simply “not push” the measure. POA President Marty Halloran added that the POA may see fit to “mesh our language” in the ballot measure “with the Police Commission language.”

But that’s not possible either. If the POA measure is approved by the voters — which looks to be highly likely — then its words become law. Members of the Police Commission, to put it bluntly, don’t know what the hell Halloran is talking about.

“You can’t change the language of a statute; that’s not something you negotiate,” says commissioner Bill Hing, also a lawyer. “The language in the ballot measure is the language in the ballot measure,” adds commissioner Bob Hirsch, who is a lawyer as well. “We can’t change that now.”

Delagnes notes that, should the POA opt to “not push” the ballot measure, it would save them lots of money. That’s true. But nobody much expects that scenario to come to pass. Even the most permissive, collaboratively generated Taser policy won’t be as permissive as the one the POA has written for itself.

And it’s hard to foresee the POA losing. Tasers poll through the roof. And while this isn’t a straight up-or-down Taser measure — far, far from it — that’s a nuance that requires explaining for most voters.

Most of them figure to read this and think, “cops should have Tasers; I’m voting ‘yes,'” rather than the real question: “Is this use and accountability policy the police union made for itself superior to the one that was derived through collaborative negotiations?” And, “Why the hell am I voting on this?”

Chief Scott’s rejection of the POA measure is, perhaps, the only thing that could potentially prevent its runaway June win.

Following his move, London Breed last week shifted from her baffling neutral position to a “no.” (Her campaign claims Breed in late February inadvertently filled in “yes” on the League of Pissed Off Voters form — but she also wrote out “yes” on a supplemental submission. The Green Party adds that Breed entered “yes” on their form, too.)

As a “no” vote now, Breed joins Mark Leno and Jane Kim (Angela Alioto is for it; “LOL, yes I signed it at the MLK breakfast,” she texted me).

It remains unclear whether Scott will continue to voice his displeasure in a manner that will register with voters; it remains unclear if he’ll write a ballot argument; and it remains unclear who, if anyone, will fund the uphill campaign against the POA measure Delagnes figured his group would pour $500,000 into, easy.

As such, it remains unclear what’s going to happen on Wednesday — other than histrionics.

It remains unclear if it’ll mean anything at all.

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