This June voters will be asked to vote on an initiative put forward by the Police Officers Association (POA) that would arm every police officer with Tasers,, a lethal weapon that has long been controversial in San Francisco. The Police Commission, a body meant to enforce police accountability, approved the implementation of Tasers in SFPD in November but has undergone an extensive community process to decide when Tasers can or cannot be used. The ballot initiative would set that policy for them.
The day after Mayor Lee endorsed the POA initiative, the Police Commission announced a meeting to vote on their own Taser policy, a vote that is happening as this paper goes to press. There is proposed language in front of the Commission that was written by SFPD as well as language proposed by different community organizations. The SFPD language is famore restrictive than the POA’s version, but still includes language that allows for dangerous use of Tasers.
Whether or not the Police Commission passes a policy on March 14, the ballot initiative will take precedence if passed in June. This means that the more permissive Taser policy could be put into effect regardless of the Commission’s process. SFPD Police Chief Bill Scott has come out publicly in opposition to the POA’s ballot measure saying that it would undermine the police reform process that was created with the Police Commission.
The POA shot back at the Police Chief in a statement saying “the Chief allowed himself to be played like a cheap fiddle by some on the Police Commission who have their own agenda. He should get rid of whoever is advising him – otherwise, he is going to drive an irreparable wedge between himself and the membership.” In the same statement they lauded Mayor Mark Farrell for his strongly worded support of the lethal weapons and for the June measure.
The ACLU has come out against both the ballot initiative and the SFPD language. They say they would support a policy that restricted Taser use for situations in which suspects were resisting “violently”, rather than “actively” as the current SFPD language would allow. They also noted several other places in which the policy is vague to the point of being unenforceable, or where the policy could threaten the lives of those targeted. Under this proposal SFPD could justify the use of a Taser, a lethal weapon, on anyone being verbally aggressive.
Community groups like the Coalition on Homelessness have been fighting to prevent SFPD from adopting Tasers since 2004, citing their use on mentally ill people, the risks they pose to elderly or physically disabled people, their tendency to be used against people of color, and their failure to prevent police-involved deaths. Reuters statistics from 2017 showed that 1,005 people have been killed by police Tasers since 2000, and that 90 percent of the victims were unarmed.
“For years San Francisco has debated whether or not to allow police to be equipped with these lethal weapons, which will be used mainly against homeless people and against people of color” said Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness. “This initiative that is being put on the ballot by the POA seeks to bypass the massive community effort and implement Tasers dangerously and irresponsibly. The ballot measure is irresponsible and allows lethal weapons to be used on someone doing something as non-threatening as holding a pole.”
Unfortunately the SFPD policy that may be supported at the Police Commission meeting has serious drawbacks as well, with language allowing the use of Tasers when there is no immediate threat of physical injury to an officer or another and failing to include a requirement that de-escalation be tried first. The policy would also allow for the use of the stun gun mode, which is an inhumane pain compliance tool that was removed from proposed policy last year at the behest of the community. Critically absent as well is prohibition against using the weapon on high risk populations, like children and pregnant people, as well as a requirement for all cops armed with Tasers to carry defibrillators to revive people.