S.F.’s Taser Battle Continues, With Use of Force Training Front and Center

It could be years before all of the city’s police are armed with Tasers. What will that mean for the next Mario Woods?

In theory, San Francisco police officers will soon be able to carry Tasers. In practice, a lot has to happen before local police have an alternative to their sidearms.

After several high-profile officer-involved shootings in San Francisco, the U.S. Department of Justice told San Francisco to arm its officers with Tasers — a move most major American cities made long ago. SFPD resisted, in part, because opponents worry either that the devices are too lethal, or not effective. The San Francisco Police Commission relented and approved the devices in November, but there’s a lot more work ahead.

First, the city and the San Francisco Police Officers Association have to agree on when exactly Tasers will be handed out. Then, officers will need to go through several sets of training before they can carry the devices.

In March, the Police Commission hammered out detailed rules for which officers can carry them and how they’ll be used. Simultaneously, the POA drafted a competing policy — Proposition H, which would have made it impossible to amend the city’s Taser policy without approval from four-fifths of the Board of Supervisors, or a majority of the city’s voters.

It failed; voters shot down Prop. H in June’s election, leaving the POA to bargain with the city on how to implement the Police Commission’s Taser plan.

Wrangling the opinionated POA in those meet-and-confer sessions is just one of many hoops SFPD must jump through before officers can begin to have Tasers at the ready. Under the Police Commission’s policy, officers must also go through Taser training, plus a 20-hour de-escalation course and a 40-hour crisis intervention training before they can use the devices. But the 40-hour course is offered so infrequently that, by the SFPD’s own calculations, it could take five years to train everyone.

It’s taken years to get even this far. The city updated its police use-of-force policy in late 2016, as part of a larger response to a sharp increase in officer-involved shootings in 2015, when six people died (and three others were injured). Among other things, it barred officers from using a restraint method known as the carotid hold, which contributed to Eric Garner’s death in New York, and from shooting at moving vehicles, which was how Jessica Williams was killed in the Bayview in 2016.

Tasers may be less lethal, but activists of color in the region are divided on the use of the devices. In April, at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Shawn Richard, executive director of Brothers Against Guns, told the crowd, “I’d rather be hit by a Taser than a bullet.”

But Phelicia Jones, founder of Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community — Justice 4 Mario Woods, campaigned against Prop. H and opposes police use of Tasers.

“It’s a no-win for Black people. They need to change how they look at us, how they treat us, so they want us to live and not die,” Jones told SF Weekly. “If they are going to be allowed to use Tasers, Black people would be electrocuted.”

To get at the deeper issues between the SFPD and San Francisco’s communities of color, it helps to back up a little. Between 2000 and 2015, police fatally shot 40 people — six in 2015 alone, including Mario Woods, a Black man whose death galvanized the city. In April 2016, a group of activists called the Frisco Five staged a hunger strike, demanding the resignation of then-Police Chief Greg Suhr. A month later, after local officers shot and killed Williams, an unarmed Black woman, Suhr stepped down.

The U.S. Justice Department stepped in, recommending more than 250 top-to-bottom reforms, one of which was the deployment of Tasers. Another was to track the department’s use of force.

According to SFPD reports, local officers’ use of force dropped 18.5 percent from 2016 to 2017. But it remained disproportionately high among people of color, especially Black people, who made up 6 percent of the city’s population in 2010 but were on the receiving end of 42 percent of SFPD’s use-of-force incidents in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Latinos, meanwhile, were 15.1 percent of the 2010 population but 21 percent of the SFPD’s use-of-force population last fall. Those numbers don’t sit well with Jones.

Police Chief Bill Scott “wants to get up and tell the Board of Supervisors that use of force is down,” she says. “It’s down for every ethnicity except Black people. But they’re not reporting that. Why is it the use of force can be down for everyone else? Someone needs to answer that question.”

It’s also not clear how well the SFPD’s de-escalation and crisis-intervention trainings work, in terms of preventing use-of-force incidents.

Only 882 officers (47.5 percent) have gone through 40-hour crisis intervention training course introduced in 2012, police spokesperson Grace Gatpandan says, which includes deeper training on mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Roughly six to 10 sessions are offered each year, and the department expects it’ll be another four to five years before all officers have gone through it.

The slow results show. Only three of the five officers involved in the shooting death of Woods, and one of the three involved in Alex Nieto’s death in 2014, had gone through the training.

And, in the past six months, San Francisco police officers have shot and killed three more men of color — 42-year-old Keita O’Neil in December, and, in a single incident in March, 19-year-old Jesus Adolfo Delgado Duarte and 21-year-old Jehad Eid. On June 9, an SFPD officer shot 28-year-old Oliver Barcenas in the back.

Rookie officer Chris Samaoya hadn’t had the chance to go through the de-escalation or crisis intervention trainings before he shot and killed O’Neil, who was unarmed. Both of the officers involved in Eid’s shooting and three of the 10 who fired on Duarte had been through the 40-hour course.

For some, Tasers are considered the answer. They’re often regarded as a “less-lethal” option when compared to firearms, but Reuters found that 1,005 people nationwide had died after police stunned them with Tasers, and the devices were the cause or a contributing factor in 153 of those deaths. 

Some medical experts believe that Taser shocks can boost the risk of heart failure in cases where people are agitated or under the influence of drugs, or have underlying health problems, according to a report from Amnesty International. In the Reuters report, Taser International (a major producer of the devices, renamed Axon in 2017) insisted that only a couple dozen deaths could be attributed to the devices — and 18 of those were from fatal head and neck injuries sustained after a subject was Tased and then fell.

Police Commissioner Robert Hirsch, a strong Taser supporter, says he’s not worried about the slow rollout.

“The police department has gone 150 years without this weapon,” Hirsch says. “Obviously, we want to get it done. But we also want the new use-of-force policy to take hold, and once that’s part of the DNA of the police force, the Taser could be introduced. I’m not all that concerned about how long it’s going to take.”

Hirsch says there’s so much criticism around Duarte’s shooting, in particular, because officers fired on him 99 times.

“If only seven shots were fired, I don’t think people would have the same issues. He was firing from the trunk. You can’t expect an officer to do anything other than use deadly force because they’ve got to protect people around them,” he says. “You’re not going to ask someone to use a Taser or time and distance when there are lives at risk.”

Tasers might not have made a difference for Duarte or Eid, but what about the future Woodses, Nietos, or Williamses who have run-ins with SFPD officers? How long will they have to wait before officers have the option to pull out a Taser instead of a gun?

Hirsh says waiting to make sure officers are well-versed in de-escalation techniques will ultimately pay off: “I think if they’re properly trained, we’ll all be better off when they have those weapons.

“But it’s true we’ve been too rough in this country,” he admits. “We use force too quickly.”

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