Shawn Richard (left) and John Burris (right) announce their support for Tasers. Photo by Julian Mark

“I’d rather be hit by a Taser than a bullet,” says anti-gun advocate

On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, civil rights attorney John Burris, along with the organization Brothers Against Guns, announced their support for arming San Francisco police with Tasers.

But only if the weapons’ use policy is subject to strict civilian oversight.

“On balance, the thousands and thousands of times [the weapon] is used, I think the number of times there’s a bad outcome is diminished, compared to when you have a fatal outcome from a firearm,” Burris said at the press gathering in the Western Addition.

He said, however, the Police Officers Association’s ballot measure — Proposition H, which would circumscribe the Police Commission’s ability to revise the department’s Taser policy and allow for more liberal Taser use than the policy approved by the Police Commission — could be dangerous. “The police should not be allowed to decide for themselves when and how Tasers are going to be used,” he said.

Whether to equip San Francisco police officers with Tasers has been a decades-long battle that ostensibly concluded last November when the Police Commission voted 4-3 in favor of their implementation. Last month, the commission adopted a Taser policy that was drafted with more than a year of community input.

In January, however, the POA amassed enough signatures to place on the June ballot a measure that would give Tasers to officers by the end of the year. In effect, the law would strip the Police Commission, a board of appointed citizens who craft and interpret the SFPD’s policies, of its ability to create or alter the policy.

In March, Police Chief Bill Scott denounced the measure as “antithetical” to the spirit of the reform process.

While Taser critics say that the weapons will be used disproportionately against people of color and those suffering from mental illness, members of Brothers Against Guns repeatedly emphasized that, considering the alternative, they’re okay with that.

“I’d rather be hit by a Taser than a bullet,” said Shawn Richard, executive director of Brothers Against Guns.

He asserted that past victims of the police shootings in San Francisco — including Mario Woods, Jessica Williams and Keita O’Neil — would still be alive if SFPD officers had the option to stun them.

Still, Richard continued, it’s better to be neither Tased nor shot; de-escalation would be superior to any use of force, and he feels Tasers and de-escalation tactics can be used in tandem to save lives. “If you train them how to talk a person, that’s better than any weapon,” he said.

Burris agreed. He said that de-escalation is important, but it can sometimes fail. “Then a Taser becomes an appropriate use,” he said.

Without citing specifics, Burris said he recently turned down a case in which someone was Tased by police, but he felt de-escalation had been properly attempted and the use of the Taser wasn’t inappropriate. “It certainly wasn’t used in an abusive way,” he said.

Although he recognized that the SFPD has a long history of failing to live up to its own rules — Burris has more cases against the department than he can keep track of — he seemed resigned that arming its officers with Tasers “can’t be any worse than any weapon they (already) have.”

“The question is: Can it be used, short of officers using deadly force?”  

Damien Posey, a Bayview resident and a member of Brothers Against Guns, thinks so.

He has been shot by both a gun and Taser. “I’ve felt those hot slugs before,” he said. “I’ve seen what they can do and how deadly they are.”

“With proper training, Tasers can be used effectively in our communities instead of us dying senselessly over just fear.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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