Pack the Police Commission hearing on Tasers: this Wednesday, Feb. 23, 5:30 p.m., in Room 400, City Hall
KPFA News: Sabrina Jacobs interviews Bay View publisher Willie Ratcliff on Tasers
by Bob Offer-Westort
• In the first year of Taser usage, sudden deaths in custody go up 550 percent.
• In that same year, officer shootings more than double.
• The Memphis CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) model, recently implemented in San Francisco, reduces shooting deaths in psychiatric crises by roughly 90 percent.
Police shootings never end well. While the head of the Police Officers’ Association, Gary Delagnes, may think it’s funny to joke about cracking heads at protests, he represents a tiny (though powerful) lunatic fringe within the San Francisco Police Department. Hardly anyone, even cops, would deny that every occasion on which a police bullet hits a civilian, we have a tragedy. But police departments all too frequently leave those of us who are still alive with many more questions than answers.
The Jan. 4 shooting of Randy Dunklin, a wheelchair-bound man who held no hostages and had threatened no one before SFPD’s arrival, was a particularly messy situation. Initial officer reports of what transpired prior to the shooting were later contradicted by the release of a civilian video which showed that the officers involved had been less than honest, and that the shooting was more the result of poor tactics than of Mr. Dunklin’s actions.
Then-Chief George Gascón’s sole response to the shooting, the cover-up and the revelation of the cover-up was a renewal of his call for Tasers (electrical “stun” guns) for San Francisco cops.
Gascón’s known for having something of a big mouth: Last year, he described Yemeni and Afghan San Franciscans as potential terrorists and dismissed protesters against the “sit/lie” law with a crude analogy, telling them that their dissent was a “middle finger” to San Francisco voters. Nor is Gascón recognized for his good judgment: As chief, he did not instruct his department to investigate the theft of cocaine from the department drug lab until he was pressured to do so by the media. Again, it took media attention before he had a colony of feral cats removed from the department’s evidence warehouse.
Gascón is no longer chief, having been installed by former Mayor Gavin Newsom as interim district attorney. But along with a legacy of community distrust, our ex-chief left open the issue of Tasers in San Francisco. Last year, the Police Commission voted narrowly to reject Tasers for SFPD use. On Feb. 23, a newly formed Police Commission – one that includes members appointed by pro-Taser Mayor Newsom – will reconsider the possibility of approving Tasers for SFPD use.
Tasers are pistol-shaped weapons that pass an electrical charge through the body of a “Tasing” victim. Contact can be made in one of two ways: Through direct contact between two prongs and the flesh of the victim (a method known as “drive stun”), or through two barbed darts that are shot from the weapon and dig into the victim’s skin. Either way, the Taser passes a charge of 50,000 volts 19 times per second for a period of five seconds each time the trigger is pulled. Panicked cops frequently pull that trigger more than once in a row.
This kind of electrical charge can lead to arrhythmia and even heart attacks. In the largest study of Tasers ever conducted, UCSF doctors found that in 50 California police departments, “sudden deaths” in custody increased an average 544 percent the year after Tasers were adopted. They remained at half again their prior rate in subsequent years: For every two people who died in police custody prior to the introduction of Tasers, 13 died in year one of Taser use, and three died in years two through four.
Tasers are definitely lethal, but the counter to this argument is usually: Sure, Tasers can kill, but isn’t that more than balanced by the number of shootings they prevent? Wouldn’t you rather be “Tased” than shot?
Would you rather win the lottery, or file for unemployment tomorrow? Would you rather spend your next vacation on a beach in Fiji or visiting your in-laws in Bakersfield? The choice isn’t a real one. The same study determined that officer shootings do not decrease as a result of the introduction of Tasers. For every three people shot by cops prior to the introduction of Tasers, seven were shot in the first year of Taser use! In subsequent years, that number dropped down to four, which was still an increase over the pre-Taser baseline.
It’s not possible, from the data available, to determine precisely why cops shoot more people once they have Tasers. However, it is certain that Taser usage does not lead to fewer shootings.
It is for many of these reasons that the United Nations and Amnesty International consider Tasers to be torture devices, and that the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) oppose their use.
The United Nations and Amnesty International consider Tasers to be torture devices.
Prior to the commission’s vote last year to reject the use of Tasers for SFPD, the ACLU made a recommendation to the department: Before we begin even developing a plan for Taser implementation in San Francisco, have some conversations with the communities that you want Tasers to protect. Talk with communities of color, with mental health and medical professionals, with school officials and parents, and with civil rights advocates. None of this has happened.
And the community has spoken. After the shooting of Mr. Dunklin, the mental health community sprang almost immediately to action. The Idriss Stelley Foundation, Education Not Incarceration and the Coalition on Homelessness held a powerful rally on the steps of City Hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day featuring speakers from Bayview Hunters Point, the Tenderloin and the Mission, who called for accountability from the police department and new protocols that would reduce the deaths in our communities.
They were joined by the Mental Health Association, the Mental Health Board and Caduceus Justice, who called for a renewal of mental health crisis intervention training along with new deployment procedures for SFPD and mental health professionals. The National Association for the Mentally Ill would very soon join in this call, and all of the above organizations released a list of three asks of the Police Commission.
For a decade up until last summer, San Francisco police actually had a crisis training program. This was cut by Chief Gascón in 2010, who dismissed the program as having nothing other than recreational value.
Throughout Gascón’s brief administration, he has dismissed the importance of tactics and community collaboration and has focused on draconian new laws, new weapons and new toys. Rather than accepting that police officers might have done a better job than shooting a man in a wheelchair and lying about it, he told us that the cops just needed a different kind of weapon to shoot him with.
Rather than accepting that police officers might have done a better job than shooting a man in a wheelchair and lying about it, Chief Gascón told us that the cops just needed a different kind of weapon to shoot him with.
Fortunately for San Francisco, Police Commissioners Jim Hammer, Angela Chan and Thomas Mazzucco took the Dunklin shooting and other recent shootings far more seriously than did the former chief. Furthermore, they found in interim Chief Jeff Godown a man who was willing to take these shootings far more seriously than was his predecessor.
The three commissioners, supported by interim Chief Godown, introduced before the commission a plan to introduce “Crisis Intervention Teams” to San Francisco. The model developed in Memphis, Tennessee, both: 1) trains a specially-selected group of police officers in working with people in mental illnesses and in verbal de-escalation techniques; and 2) develops a deployment protocol to ensure that these officers take the lead in any situation that involves psych crisis.
In the years since this model has been implemented in Memphis, the city reports that police shootings of people in psychiatric crisis are down roughly 90 percent. Similarly beneficial results have come from other cities that have adopted Memphis’ model.
In a historically rare event, the San Francisco Police Commission voted unanimously to support the implementation of the model (usually abbreviated CIT) in the San Francisco Police Department. They received not only the support of interim Chief Godown, but also of the conservative Police Officers’ Association, of every major mental health advocacy organization in San Francisco and of virtually every member of the public in public comment.
CIT looks like a good idea. But consensus doesn’t just hatch out of good ideas. Consensus is built. And Commissioners Angela Chan and Jim Hammer merit special credit for the work they put into bringing mental health advocates and the department together to explain and develop buy-in for the new model. They held meetings with mental health advocates, cops and representatives from the Memphis program.
They consulted the department and mental health professionals for the wording of the resolution that created CIT. Consensus takes work, but the result is that it’s much more likely that the new program – which has buy-in from the community and all involved parties – will succeed.
With CIT, the commission heard our community’s voices. With Tasers, the department seems to have tuned us out. All that means is that we need to speak louder. Please join us at the Police Commission hearing on Tasers this Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 5:30 p.m. in Room 400 of City Hall and let the commission know what kind of policing our community wants.
Bob Offer-Westort, civil rights organizer and Street Sheet coordinating editor with the Coalition on Homelessness, 468 Turk St., San Francisco CA 94102, can be reached at email@example.com or (415) 346-3740, ext. 312.