Taser community forums raise unanswered questions

by Carol Harvey

Forced by the San Francisco Police Commission’s own Feb. 23, 2011, resolution requiring community outreach on whether to put tasers in SFPD officers’ hands, Police Chief Greg Suhr and the commission, after several 2012 cancelled dates, finally scheduled and held the required community forums, where Suhr and Comdrs. Richard Corriea and Mikail Ali described the Electronic Control Weapon (ECW) proposal and invited community input. Now, Suhr expects officers specially trained in de-escalation techniques to calm folks suffering mental crisis by pointing electrified taser probe guns at them.

The commission’s final vote is projected for April 2013.

Another rejection

Public comment majorities at the Jan. 22 Hamilton Recreation Center, the Feb. 4 Scottish Rite Center and the Feb. 11 Bayview Opera House forums joined San Francisco taxpayers since 2001 in soundly rejecting Chief Suhr’s proposal to initiate a pilot program to arm Crisis Intervention Team officers with stun guns in de-escalation situations with people in mental health crisis and on medications or other substances.

Hamilton commenters cited too much violence and unresolved police misconduct. The Scottish Rite group emphasized cops tasing folks in mental health crisis. The Bayview, still suffering from the SFPD murder of Kenneth Harding outside the Opera House, the apparent police wolf-packing of student Kevin Clark at 24th and Mission, and Christopher Dorner’s whistle-blowing on LAPD corruption, demanded immediate respect.

Police wolf-packing Kevin Clark

Bay View publisher Willie Ratcliff demanding respect from cops

Were the forums sincere community outreach attempts?

The Police Commission resolution requires “consultation with communities of color, LGBT … and other key segments of the community.” Ignoring this mandate, the commission and Suhr have made no plans for a Castro community forum and have denied an urgent public request for forums in the Tenderloin and Mission, where CIT officers most frequently encounter people suffering public mental health crises.

Therefore, Tenderloin residents launched their own grassroots community forum. Hosted by Hospitality House, co-sponsored by the Coalition on Homelessness, “A Community Speak Out on Tasers” was held Monday, March 25, at 201 Turk from 5 to 7 p.m. Present were Police Commissioners Suzy Loftus, Julius Turman and Petra DeJesus and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who for the first time came out publicly against police getting tasers.

Forty-three public commenters presented informed, compelling anti-taser arguments, which the crowd of an estimated 150 people loudly and continually applauded. Rodney Williams of Officers for Justice said his organization of police officers was opposed to tasers.

Panelist David Elliott Lewis noted that the Mental Health Board, of which he is secretary, passed a resolution against tasers Nov. 14, 2012. Panelist and Youth Commission President Mia Shackelford introduced other Youth Commission members, who, on Feb. 19, 2013, passed their own anti-taser resolution. Panelist Laura Guzman, director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, clarified the process of de-escalation: “talking down” people in mental health crisis. “We need more love; no more tasers!” she said.

Audience members and advocates spoke out strongly against taser use on groups well known to be at risk of injury or death from tasers – people with physical and mental disabilities, small body mass, epilepsy, diabetes, autism and cardiac problems, seniors and users of illicit and prescribed drugs like HIV/AIDS sufferers. Joe Wilson of Hospitality House presented results of a survey of Tenderloin residents. Seventy-five percent of respondents said it was not necessary for police to tase the mentally ill, while 80 percent voted for “other methods” like “talking to people.”

A grassroots group is currently organizing a Castro-Mission taser forum for some time in April – date, time and place to be announced.

Why does Chief Suhr really want tasers?

Chief Suhr’s rationale for tasers? He claims tasers would have prevented last summer’s shooting death of mentally ill Pralith Pralourng. Since his Aug. 1, 2012, taser proposal to the Police Commission, like every preceding police chief, he has resurrected the questionable argument that, though tasers pose a death risk to a wide range of groups, tasers are “less lethal” than guns.

Taser-with-video-camera-used-by-Brentwood-PD-by-Paul-Chinn-SF-Chron, Taser community forums raise unanswered questions, Local News & Views Vivian Ho’s Feb. 18, 2013, Chronicle article, “S.F. police chief seeks stun gun program,” seems to promote Suhr’s “less lethal” justification.

Ho admits, “Medical experts say that although police classify stun guns as ‘less lethal’ weapons, they can still kill.” However, Ho quotes Dr. Zian Tseng, cardiologist and UCSF associate professor claiming a negligible “1.4 deaths per 100,000.”

This claim, says police brutality expert Mesha Irizarry, “is a falsity. That’s biased, and that’s not good journalism. We are now fighting a known total of 781 taser-related deaths. There are many more deaths in jailhouse custody that never appear in coroner’s reports. Seven hundred eighty-one deaths is huge! Five deaths since Jan. 1, 2013, is huge!”

A necessary death?

Pralith Pralourng was a 32-year-old man made vulnerable by schizophrenia, who, on July 18, 2012, according to family, suffered a psychiatric crisis. Unaware of what he was doing, Pralourng non-fatally cut a TCHO Chocolate Factory co-worker with a box-cutter. According to Suhr, he then headed toward the Embarcadero.

There a 20-year veteran white female officer with short blonde hair in her 50s, fully trained in Crisis Intervention by report, encountered Pralourng.

Backed against a patrol car door, she could have followed standard police officer safety training and protected herself from his blade by opening the door, entering and locking herself inside. Instead, she shot Pralourng dead.

Irizarry stated police are trained to make split-second decisions not to box themselves in. Said Irizarry, “As someone trained in mental health, the last thing we would do is back ourselves against a wall or any immobile object,” like a locked door or a car. “You always watch for exits – have an emergency escape.”

“When dealing with ONE person in mental distress, (police) have the option to (trap) him or her between two patrol cars, then use non-violent verbal de-escalation skills to calm the person down.”

SFPD-Chief-Greg-Suhr-pushes-tasers-by-Mike-Koozmin-SF-Examiner, Taser community forums raise unanswered questions, Local News & Views The officer did not adhere to proper actions Suhr described at the Scottish Rite Forum: “training in tactical disengagement, where we respond and then we stand back rather than rush in. We don’t want to create the moment. We want to create time and distance.”

Why did the officer not use her crisis intervention training to talk down Pralourng or at least disable him by shooting his abdomen, thigh, leg or knee? He would have fallen, but lived.

Stated Irizarry, “Standard police training mandates that officers, identifying immediate danger, fire a gun at center mass.”

She agreed that, consistent with the Police Commission’s resolution, SFPD modifications to DGO 5.01 Use of Force orders should be changed, allowing sharpshooters to aim at non-lethal body parts. This would remove the possibility of what Suhr termed so colorfully at the Scottish Rite Center “a ‘lawful but awful’ event such as the one on the Embarcadero.”

Why do SPFD chiefs keep resurrecting the taser spectre?

Why did Police Chiefs Heather Fong and George Gascon, Interim Chief Jeff Godown and now Greg Suhr, from 2009 to 2013, keep revisiting tasers for the SFPD “tool box,” though San Franciscans have consistently voiced an adamant NO!

On March 6, 2013, the Huffington Post published an article by Radley Balko, “ACLU Launches Nationwide Police Militarization Investigation,” asserting, “The militarization of America’s police forces has been going on for about a generation now.” The ACLU will investigate municipalities’ requests for drones, GPS tracking devices, Pentagon and Homeland Security programs for military equipment.

On Friday, Feb. 28, 2013, Pentagon spending expert Michael Eisenscher told Progressive Democrats of America during a San Francisco Unitarian Church Sequester forum, “We are living with the consequences of the militarization of our foreign policy here at home. Our police departments are being militarized. Now, they’re even asking for drones.

“If you were downtown in Oakland during Occupy and you saw the police response, what you saw was a paramilitary or a military response.

OPD flashbang grenades striking Scott Olsen

“Every police department has a budget from the Pentagon to acquire weapons that are used by the military, and they can apply for grants if they don’t have money in their budgets.”

On Thursday, Feb. 14, in her article in the Mission District-based newspaper El Tecolote, “Plan to Arm Police With Tasers Raises Concern,” Laura Waxmann quotes Rebecca Luiz-Richter of The Idriss Stelley Foundation and the Anti-Taser Task Force: “We are looking at the militarization of the police department. (The department) wants more weapons as opposed to engaging in the CIT training that the commission ordered the police to do – and still haven’t done.”

Of police departments nationally, only Reno, Memphis and San Francisco lack tasers. Anti-taser groups suspect the Pralourng death provided the taser trigger to full-scale militarization.

One Scottish Rite Center commenter asked: “What other tools do you have in your toolbox?” Suhr’s modest list: “Batons, pepper spray … (We) can call for a bean bag shotgun that shoots ravioli-sized beanbags with the force of a 100-mile-an-hour fast ball, and (we have) special weapons that we can call out in deadly instances.” He did not specify those special weapons.

May-Day-General-Strike-young-Black-man-on-ground-tasered-dntn-Oakland-050112-by-Michael-Short-Special-to-Chron, Taser community forums raise unanswered questions, Local News & Views Pivoting audience-ward, the commenter shouted, “They did not give you the projectile options they have, and I’m sure there (are) many!”

At the Hamilton and Scottish Rite forums, Commander Mikail Ali made a perfunctory stab at presenting other supposedly non-electrical less-lethal weapons under consideration. Ali described a pepper ball as “a silicon ball; inside of it is a pepper spray substance that, upon impact, opens up and creates a cloud of pepper spray that a person would be dealing with – 30 to 50 feet in terms of accuracy.”

Ali’s overhead powerpoint presentation displayed primarily pepper spray weapons:

  • PepperBall Technologies – A pepper spray field ball delivery system
  • Pixeon – JXP – A handheld pepper spray delivery system
  • FN Herstel Group – FN 303 – Combination of an impact and chemical agent projection system
  • Advanced Weapons Technology – Super Talon – A handheld projector of a Kevlar Nylon mesh net originally designed for animal control officers to humanely capture animals.
  • Phazzer Electronics and Taser International both manufacture Electronic Control Weapons (ECW).

Irizarry said, “Certain police departments have nets that can be thrown on people to immobilize without disabling or killing them. SFPD (instead uses) actual lethal force weapons billed as ‘non-lethal.’ They avoid nets as a non-lethal option because they know the nets are harmless. This is consistent with the police organizational culture to disable and kill.”

Cmdr. Mikail Ali’s proposed list of “less-lethal” options did include one type of net. However, its weak presentation and the laser-focus on tasers undermines the SFPD’s sincerity in their procurement.

Mikail Ali’s Hamilton Center presentation on less-lethal options

Is SFPD committed to the highly touted Memphis Model for crisis intervention teams?

The Memphis Model, as cited in the Police Commission resolution, would train and develop an elite team of officers especially proficient at de-escalation techniques. During the forums, Greg Suhr and his commanders seemed dismissive – almost unaware – of the power of this team approach.

In fact, SPFD officers routinely talk of training, not teams.

Said Mesha Irizarry, “The major flaw in (Vivian Ho’s) article for me is that Ho quotes (Officer Manfredi) promising, ‘We all know how to de-escalate people.’

“Officer Carlos Manfredi, a police spokesman, said all officers have received training in working with mentally ill suspects.

“’We de-escalate these situations all the time,’ he said. ‘Our officers are de-escalating these situations on a daily basis.’”

Said Irizarry, “That’s a false statement. According to Suhr himself, currently only 118, not 10,000, officers are trained in de-escalation – 118! That’s a little over 1 percent of the force. It’s not all of them.”

At the Feb. 11, 2013, Bayview Community Forum, Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach, a CIT Working Group member, pressed the point to Police Chief Greg Suhr that CIT means elite Crisis Intervention TEAMS, not Crisis Intervention TRAINING.

Friedenbach then listed eight out of 54 as-yet unrealized components of the team training:

  • Only 118 out of 450 officers trained;
  • Full 20-hour training for all 1,800 officers on communications skills incomplete;
  • The 911 Protocol not fleshed out;
  • Only partial development of the elite team itself learning de-escalation techniques with people in psychiatric crisis;
  • Team supervision unrealized;
  • No plan on what to do upon arrival at the scene; and
  • No post-incident reviews.

Suhr looked back blandly, saying, “We’re trying to train as many police officers (as possible.) We don’t want them in teams because one might not be available. We want most trained so that you get SOMEBODY. That’s been successful for us in the last two years.”

Friedenbach confronting Suhr on the team approach

He seemed unaware that the Police Commission’s resolution binds him to the team approach and that he himself confirmed, contradictorily, several times that only Crisis Intervention Team officers can carry tasers.

In fact, two station captains, focusing only on their officers receiving training, were not talking in terms of teams. During an Oct. 17, 2012, community forum, Acting Capt. Balma of the Southern Station spoke at the SOMA Commission meeting only about CIT “training.” When Commissioner Angela Chan pressed Balma on whether his Southern District officers use verbal de-escalation crisis team training, he described unsophisticated Tenderloin crisis intervention – and not in teams.

South Station Acting Captain Steven Balma

At the Feb. 27 commission meeting at the Marina’s St. Vincent De Paul School, Capt. McEachern of Northern Station spoke only about crisis intervention training. He confirmed separately he is trying to get as many officers as possible trained in crisis intervention, but not necessarily in the requisite elite teams.

When Coalition on Homelessness organizer Lisa Marie Alatorre asserted that, in contrast to the list of other less-lethal weapons and deployment of Crisis Intervention Teams, Chief Suhr had focused the forums solely on tasers, Suhr erupted in an angry denial, insisting, “I am chief of police!”

Suhr’s defensive reaction

Perhaps this noteworthy defensive reaction betrays the real agenda – and Suhr’s actual intentions – playing out in the subtext of the SFPD’s decade-long push for devices as lethal as guns or knives, devices in the police “tool kit” that zap people with one quarter of the electric chair charge.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharveysf@yahoo.com.