Crowdsourcing a Taser Policy

City officials revive a community-meeting format for hot topics.

A woman raises her hand at a community meeting on tasers Sept. 12, 2017. (Photo by Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

It only takes a couple visits to police community meetings to begin identifying the major players in the discussion. Those with anti-police sentiments show up again and again, be it to Police Commission meetings, or San Francisco Police Department town halls. Last week, a meeting to address a citywide Taser policy drew the regulars — such as Ilyich Sato, a rapper who goes by the name Equipto, who participated in a 2016 hunger strike to oust then-Police Chief Greg Suhr. With him at the event was Ike Pinkston, former Frisco Five hunger-striker and Equipto’s bandmate from the hip-hop group Bored Stiff, and Max Leung, another frequent presence at anti-police-brutality meetings.

Many regulars are there for good reason: They’ve lost loved ones to gun violence and police brutality, or they’ve been victims of attacks themselves. Mothers are scared for their sons, activists voice concerns for homeless communities, and immigrant-rights groups clamor for multilingual officers and improved cultural understanding.

But these passionate activists also raise issues for authorities when they try to get an overall read of a community’s opinion.

“Typically, the folks that come to town hall meetings are the loudest voices,” says Sheryl Evan Davis, executive director of San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission. “They come well-educated and well-versed in protocol, with their agenda. We want to make sure all voices get heard.”

Creating a space where everyone feels safe to speak up is not an easy task — and for a hot topic such as Tasers, it seems nearly impossible. For this reason, the Police Commission teamed up with the Human Rights Commission to organize two meetings this month on Conducted Energy Devices. The goal: Develop a comprehensive report on the community’s opinions to help inform a Taser policy that the Police Commission will vote on as early as late October.

“We learned from previous experience — as we were working on the Use of force issue — that smaller groups provide more opportunity for people with different views to be able to express themselves,” Police Commissioner Sonia Melara says, referencing community meetings held in the past to address incidents of police violence.

For that reason, the Police Commission revived a format of small focus groups for the Taser issue. Activists showed up to Bill Graham on Sept. 12, and instead of being handed a microphone to yell into, were broken into four small groups of 25 or so people. Carefully selected trained moderators led the discussion and wrote down common themes on a whiteboard. Aside from a few outbursts and some tears, the conversations went smoothly. Equipto got to speak, but so did quieter, more introverted people.

“They need another weapon in their arsenal,” Wayne Patamian, a building manager from SoMa, says to his group. “I’ve talked to over 50 police officers and EMTs and sheriffs, CSI officers and the community. The officers in the police department that I’ve spoken to don’t want to use them — they just want to have them in their belt as a de-escalator, and another weapon to protect the community.”

Others requested better communication between cops and their communities.

“Where I live, in Hunters Point, there’s not a lot of outreach,” says Maria Victoria, a preschool teacher. “There was an execution there, where I walk 3-year-olds. I don’t have a political agenda. I’m not a political person, I only care about families. I understand there’s information somewhere. We need a translator, we need community outreach, we need you to come to us and explain this so we know what you’re talking about.

“Your outreach is way below normal,” she adds, “at a time when trust is really low. Use your experience as an officer to educate us, to let us know what’s going on that you see, that we don’t.”

Instead of battles between “Yes, cops they should have Tasers” and “No, they shouldn’t,” many of the arguments center on facts and studies. The Taser activists — either pro or against — show up to the meetings with stacks of papers outlining research conducted by UCSF and the Department of Justice.

“Let’s just look at the facts,” Leung says. “Tasers are not non-lethal. People die from Tasers. So to use that as the narrative to argue that they don’t — it’s false.”

To the cops sitting at his round table, he adds, “I know you guys deal with a lot of things in very tough situations, where I can understand that talking someone out of a situation isn’t going to work. But are Tasers the only option aside from guns in this day and age? With all the technology that we have, we can’t do better than that as a society?”

Leung’s sentiment echoes around the room. While those who supported Tasers were able to speak up, each table only had a handful who held those beliefs; the crowd was adamantly opposed to the introduction of the weapons into the police arsenal.

Throughout the hour-long discussion, Police Chief Bill Scott made his way around the room, sitting on the outskirts of groups with his chin in his hands, deep in thought. Scott has expressed a desire for his force to be trained in Taser use, despite common opposition. Speaking softly, with carefully chosen words, he addressed the room after the groups disbanded.

“At each table there is a theme of trust: how much people in our community trust SFPD,” he says. “There are also issues about oversight and accountability, on both sides. … This decision is really important. I hope everyone here feels like they can be heard, whichever side of the decision you are on, and I hope that everyone here understands that we do take your input very seriously.”

Once the focus groups ended, a traditional town hall began — with Scott and Commissioners Melara and Hirsch on a tall stage at the front of the room. And as soon as Scott had finished speaking, the room devolved into chaos.

“Raise your hands if you’re against Tasers!” someone yelled, and nearly the entire crowd threw their hands in the air and started chanting, “No Tasers, no Tasers!” Melara stood up and threatened to end the meeting if people didn’t calm down. She was booed and screamed at. Many Taser supporters sat quietly in their seats, watching the chaos.

But the moderators — and the participants — did their job. Notes from the round tables were taken to the Human Rights Commission to compile into a comprehensive report, which will be made publicly available when it’s handed over to the Police Commission next month to inform its vote.

While tensions on Tasers continue to run high, Davis calls for peaceful understanding.

“One of the things we need to be mindful of now more than ever is that if people don’t support our opinion we shut them down,” she says. “We want to make sure we don’t do to people what we accuse the police of doing, saying, ‘It’s our way or no way.’ ”

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