Seconds before the November, 2017, vote to arm the San Francisco Police Department with Tasers, the late Police Commission President Julius Turman begged his fellow commissioners to vote “no” on giving the department the electronic stun guns. As a commissioner, he had already seen a shift in police behavior under the new use-of-force rules, and he wanted to give officers time to let those changes take hold.
“There is a cultural shift in the department slowly happening, and it can build and it can really take force,” he argued. “We need to focus on the things we are doing well. And we need to keep moving down that line.”
“Please — please — commissioners,” he said. “Do not do this.”
The majority of Turman’s colleagues did not heed his advice. But, nearly a year and a half later, his assertion appears prophetic. In spite of the 2017 Police Commission vote, Tasers have not yet been distributed to San Francisco police officers. And yet, officer use of force is down some 30 percent since 2016, and most of the department has undergone some level of crisis intervention training. Police used force 113 times during 50,000 mental health calls last year — 0.2 percent of the time. And the department has not shot a single person in more than a year.
As Turman predicted, the cultural shift is happening.
That necessitates the question: Why is the SFPD still asking for Tasers — weapons hawked as a means of reducing police killings?
During this budget cycle, the SFPD is seeking $1 million to buy Tasers, a set-aside that the Board of Supervisors may or may not approve on Thursday.
This ask also comes against the backdrop of three Taser-related deaths in San Mateo County last year — all of them unarmed men with a history of mental illness. The deaths caused the San Mateo Board of Supervisors to reassess the county sheriffs’ use of stun guns, and spurred calls for a moratorium on their use in the county.
San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine said earlier this year that San Mateo’s Taser policy must be reevaluated. Until then, he told Reuters, “I personally think it would be appropriate to have a moratorium on their use.”
On top of that, while the SFPD’s use of force has been steadily declining, the demographic on whom force is used remains relatively unchanged. Last year, black men were on the receiving end of 35 percent the SFPD’s force, despite comprising less than 5 percent of the city’s population. Data shows that Tasers as a force option are not exempt from this phenomenon.
Nevertheless, the SFPD is moving full steam ahead to arm its officers. Responding to an inquiry addressed to Chief Bill Scott, SFPD spokesman David Stevenson said the department was proud of its achievements in reducing force and police shootings. “We believe these achievements are not incompatible with the use of Electronic Controlled Weapons,” he said. “It is important to acknowledge that CIT tactics do not apply to every situation.”
Stevenson pointed out that the U.S. Department of Justice included Tasers as one of the SFPD’s 272 reform recommendations and added that only officers who have received 60 hours of CIT training can be armed with the stun guns. He estimated that more than 1,000 officers have gone through the training.
Scott said during a May 8 Police Commission meeting that the department is currently “developing infrastructure” for the stun guns’ implementation: establishing training, identifying areas where docking and charging stations are to be installed, and setting up a Taser review board.
“We are very far along on the process for each of those issues,” Scott told the commissioners.
But, he said, “Funding has to be released by the Board of Supervisors.”
Might this not be the time to reconsider Turman’s argument?
The answer to that question is, indeed, now in the hands of the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee, which is set to discuss — and possibly block — funding on Thursday. Last year, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer introduced a motion to block $3 million in funding for Tasers. It passed 3-2 with the support of Supervisor Norman Yee and then-Supervisor Malia Cohen.
Fewer now chairs the committee; Yee is still a member; and, with Cohen having graduated to the state Board of Equalization, Supervisor Hillary Ronen told Mission Local she is ready to block funding for the weapons.
Fewer and Yee did not respond to Mission Local’s inquiries, but Ronen has staked out her position. “As we’ve been saying for quite some time, Tasers are not safe,” she said in a phone interview. “As a city we’re moving in the right direction, and to introduce Tasers right now would be a big mistake.”
She said she is “absolutely willing to take that money out” of Breed’s budget proposal.
She quoted reports stating that, since Axon, the manufacturer of Tasers, lowered the weapon’s electrical output in 2009, Tasers have been seen to increase the likelihood of a police shooting. Ronen believes using “time and distance” techniques, along with coordination with Department of Public Health personnel, can be far more effective in dealing with people in crisis, she said.
While acknowledging Tasers can be “dangerous weapons,” Police Commission President Bob Hirsch, who in 2017 cast the deciding vote to implement Tasers, said the commission’s prior vote should be implemented.
“I don’t know that the Department still needs Tasers, just as I didn’t know years ago,” he wrote in an email. “But I do know that the Chief still believes they can be an effective weapon when an alternative to deadly force is called for.”
Yet with the department’s progress, Turman’s argument seems timely. Arming officers with Tasers “is going to tell people when … we are moving this department in the right direction — that we are going to abandon that, just as things begin to get better.”