by Carol Harvey in consultation with Mesha Irizarry
San Franciscans working from 2004 to 2013 to keep tasers out of SFPD officers’ hands as they “talk down” people in public crisis are today celebrating SFPD Chief Greg Suhr’s Wednesday, April 10, decision to drop his “less lethal” taser proposal for San Francisco cops.
Said Coalition on Homelessness’ Lisa Marie Alatorre, “We are super-thrilled at the decision made at last night’s (Police) Commission meeting to withdraw the proposal for tasers for SFPD Crisis Intervention Teams.”
In her Thursday, April 11, Chronicle article, “Police Chief Greg Suhr Drops Stun Gun Plan,” Vivian Ho quoted Suhr. “Constraints put on the officers” by citizen suggestions “are so onerous” “they would be reticent to use the tasers at all. Limitations on the pilot program suggested by the public would have been more harmful than helpful.”
ABC Local’s Heather Ishimaru and Amy Hollyfield reported: “Suhr says the constraints … included everything from young people, old people, people in crisis, the mentally ill, wet people and people near roadways. Officers pausing to consider all this might put them and the public more at risk.”
Ho quoted Suhr: “I still feel that we have a moral obligation to afford our officers something less lethal than a gun,” he said. “I am still mystified, frankly, that we couldn’t seem to make those who don’t understand understand that we were asking for something short of a firearm.”
“Those who don’t understand” believe “something short of a firearm” should be Crisis Intervention Team Training, proved by de-escalation experts to be highly effective over weapons, lethal or nonlethal. South Station Officer Mary Godfrey’s July 2012 shooting of Pralith Pralourng, a mentally ill man who cut a co-worker – non-fatally – precipitated Suhr’s taser proposal. During a recent Tenderloin community forum, trainer Laura Guzman demonstrated steps illustrating that talking down someone wielding a gun or a knife “is very do-able.”
Idriss Stelley Foundation Program Director Jeremy Miller affirmed: “Chief Suhr made the right decision. But the true decision wasn’t whether to request issuance of tasers to police officers but whether he could get away with abjectly defying the will of the people of San Francisco, not to mention statistics, logic, ethics, current jurisprudence and economics.
“As regards that petty, resentful man,” Police Officer Association head Gary Delagnes’ statement that “the continual liberal nonsense spewed by some police commissioners” is “causing more deaths” because they don’t subscribe to tasers “like virtually every other city in America” is astounding and unfounded. The Police Commission should be commended for engaging this issue seriously in a manner that befits their political responsibility. Tasers torture and kill. They are unaccountable weapons for unaccountable officers.
“But it was the people of San Francisco who forced Suhr’s hand, not the commission. This should be celebrated,” he insisted.
Said Mesha Irizarry, police brutality expert whose son was shot by cops 48 times during a mental breakdown in 2001, “the power of people” and “grassroots action” won this [decade-long] battle against tasers.”
Past taser history
In 2004, under Chief Heather Fong, an officer agreed to be tasered before San Francisco police commissioners. A no-taser task force headed by Ella Baker Center, Idriss Stelley Foundation and Northern California ACLU soon convinced the San Francisco Police Commission to shelve plans to buy tasers.
Next, George Gascón pushed for the stun guns he introduced as Mesa, Arizona, chief. According to Irizarry, Gascon’s review of five years of officer-involved shootings concluded tasers could have saved one third of the victims.
Angela Chan and Petra DeJesus convinced fellow police commissioners they needed more research time. On Feb. 17, 2010, they voted against adopting tasers.
Interim Chief Jeff Godown re-introduced the taser push.
On Feb. 23, 2011 the commission voted 6 to 1 on a resolution authorizing the chief of police and two police commissioners “to develop a proposal” to modify “DGO [Department General Order] 5.01, ‘use of force’ and DGO 10.02, ‘equipment,’” “investigate and evaluate Conducted Energy Devices [tasers] and all other less lethal weapons” and, finally, “recommend a proposal for a pilot deployment program.” This was to be done “in consultation with communities of color, mental health professionals, LGBT and other key segments of the community.”
Recent taser history – building blocks one by one
The current debate began Aug. 1, 2012, when commission meeting public commenters rebuffed Chief Suhr’s taser re-proposal. The Idriss Stelley Foundation and the Coalition on Homelessness formed anti-taser, pro-CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) groups, later to be joined by Hospitality House, San Francisco Mental Health Association, Gray Panthers, Poor Magazine, CUAV (Community United Against Violence), San Francisco Bay View newspaper, Officers for Justice and many other groups.
In its Oct. 17, 2012, meeting at the Sixth Street South of Market Recreation Center to fulfill its Feb. 23, 2011, resolution to reach out to communities of color, mental health professionals, LGBT and other key segments of the community,” the Police Commission planned three community forums, all cancelled without notice.
In 2013, Chief Suhr and the commission resurrected the forums, which were held Jan. 22 in the Fillmore District’s Hamilton Recreation Center, Feb. 4 in the Richmond District’s Scottish Rite Center, and Feb. 11 at the Bayview Opera House. Community response was overwhelmingly anti-taser.
The anti-taser, pro-CIT group collected 24 letters against tasers from the mental health community.
Irizarry and Miller presented the Mental Health Board with a resolution discouraging taser use against people in public mental crisis. Board members passed the resolution 9 to 2 on Nov. 14, 2012.
After Irizarry and Miller approached San Francisco Supervisors’ aides, John Avalos proposed a Dec. 5, 2012, Public Safety Committee taser hearing. Both the public’s comments and statements by Supervisors Avalos, Campos, Mar and Olague aligned perfectly with attorney Micaela Davis’ Dec. 4 ACLU letter urging Mayor Ed Lee to “reject any SFPD proposal to deploy tasers or other conductive energy devices.”
In February, Idriss Stelley advocates addressed the Youth Commission Executive Committee. Said Irizarry, “Even conservative elements were excited about it,” voting 10 to 1 in favor of the resolution. The commission extended four unanswered invitations to SFPD top brass to present their position on tasers. On the day of the resolution at 2 p.m., Irizarry recalls that Suhr sent a message to Youth Commission Executive Director Mario Yedidia saying, “We do not feel it necessary at this point to approach your commission about tasers.” During the 5:30 p.m. session, the resolution was approved. Suspicions are that Suhr’s snub won the Youth Commission vote.
During a fourth grassroots organized Tenderloin taser forum, District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim came out publicly against tasers.
Irizarry and Alatorre agree, “This was a peoples’ victory.”
Said Irizarry, “Organizers put in thousands of hours working constituency by constituency, citizen by citizen, capitalizing on each small victory until the big victory was achieved. But, if citizens hadn’t come to express their concerns very vocally, the organizers wouldn’t have got anywhere. Elders and disabled people in wheelchairs left the comfort of their warm homes on cold winter evenings to say, “‘Do not do this! No tasers!”
Alatorre saw a huge win for the people – homeless people, mental illness survivors, youth, those concerned about human rights, poverty and economic issues.
“It’s exciting that we showed huge momentum – that we showed up at these forums and made sense. It’s interesting what Vivian Ho’s ‘completely biased’ Chronicle article does NOT say.”
She felt people power gathering force through the forums exposed the SFPD’s “ineptness.” The people knew the answers! Were smarter! They got it!”
Will SFPD try again for tasers?
Though Alatorre termed tasers “dead,” she was leery about another weapon proposal. Ho quoted Suhr and Turman insisting they still need a “less lethal” option.
At the Hamilton forum, Durrell Hunter speaks about police corruption and double-teaming departments to taser people
Irizarry surmised one department using tasers could weasel electroshock devices into another department’s action. Hamilton forum commenters cited the medical student targeted in 2007 by SFPD and Sheriff’s deputies in a North Beach tasing.
Less lethal weapon of choice: Crisis Intervention Teams
“The community expects an SFPD commitment on implementing fully and embodying Crisis Intervention Teams,” said Alatorre, stressing “teams.”
Coalition Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach emphasized throughout these forums that police have taken baby steps toward the CIT program.
The department, naturally attuned to weapons, command and control, has not institutionally internalized the crisis intervention team ethos, creating the expected “cultural shift” within SFPD.
Irizarry said blonde Mary Godfrey, Pralourng’s “assassin,” was CIT certified. In April 2012, the commission gave Godfrey a bronze medal for good police work. In July, she shot Pralourng at close range twice in the chest. “SFPD has a long way to go on Crisis Intervention Team trainings,” said Irizarry.
Mesha Irizarry publicly identified Officer Mary Godfrey as ‘assassinating’ Pralith Pralourng. Lack of an objection from Chief Greg Suhr constitutes an admission that Mary Godfrey was, indeed, Pralourng’s shooter.
A spring grassroots Castro-Mission Community Forum will tackle ways to shift SFPD focus from weapons to crisis intervention.
Let the public view CIT training
Irizarry proposes opening CIT trainings to public view where concerned citizens can see with their own eyes how CIT works. “This would reverse public antagonisms, growing distrust and disrespect toward SFPD and help people see police in a positive way.”
Taser moratorium proposal
Irizarry notes, “Three times we defeated Taser International’s SFPD contract. Enough is enough. We do not need to waste woman-man power, energy and time beating that dead horse. It is indecent that, with each new mayoral or police appointment, top brass see an open door to a taser debate revival.”
Provided the electorate has current information on the brutality of tasers, she wants to look into a San Francisco taser moratorium. “In San Francisco smoke shops, you can even buy cute little neon-colored tasers for children and women that are quite powerful.” There is a lot of education to do before introducing the moratorium concept.
‘A brutal beginning’
Jeremy Miller describes “an incredibly brutal beginning of 2013, with multiple SFPD officer-involved shootings and an even larger amount of extra-judicial malicious use of force. Maybe some more of the extraordinary $518 million 2013-2014 budget for SFPD should go to non-violent de-escalation training, better psychological evaluations of potential officers, and restitution and victims’ services for those who have borne the brunt of SFPD atrocities. San Francisco’s populace has mandated that the city do better. Time to get to work.”
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.