Tasers - Controversy or Political Fumble?

On March 4th 2010 the Police Commission voted 4 to 3 to not allow Chief Gascón the opportunity to draft a policy on the deployment of Tasers. As incomprehensible as it sounds it’s true - they denied him the opportunity to DRAFT a policy.

Two of the Commissioners said they were denying this because they hadn’t heard from the public. That would be us folks. Let them and your elected officials hear from you. The Chief should be allowed to draft a policy.

Should the police be equipped with Tasers? We can start that discussion now and carry it forward after the policy is drafted. Here is a synopsis of the controversy presented to the Commission.

Taser is a brand name of stun gun. It shoots a pair of wires about 20 feet. The wires have small barbs on the end and when they come in contact with a body they complete an electrical circuit delivering a pretty high voltage shock to the person, which stuns them. Many police forces use them across the US.

After the Chief’s first presentation to the Commission the subject was held over till the next meeting. At the second meeting the discussion was centered on a study done by two UCSF researchers. Their study is the largest study ever done on the question of whether or not deaths increase when Tasers are deployed. Study after study show that officer involved (gun) shootings decrease when the stun device is deployed, but this study looked at the evidence that there was a spike in sudden deaths after the initial deployment of the tool.

What the study found was that in the first year after deployment there was a spike of in-custody deaths. These deaths occurred when there was no evidence of excessive force, firearm use or other injuries. There’s a spike in heart attacks in the first year, that then drops back to the average in the following year. The study showed an increase that was a “six fold” increase over the norm before and after. A six-fold increase is a huge jump!

In this study the prior-to-deployment average went from a less than 1 in-custody death per year, per 100,000 arrests to a less than 6 / 100,000 in the first full year after deployment. Then the number dropped back down to about one in 100,000 arrests in subsequent years.

Why this spike occurs was not investigated. Recommendations from the researchers were given, such as the patrol car should be equipped with an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) which can be used to restart the heart and the person should not be shot in the chest area close to the heart. The later will diminish the number of hearts stopped and the AED can revive most of the rest.

After this presentation the Commission voted to not allow the Chief to draft a policy, even though the researchers pointed out ways to mitigate the spike. In fact at the opening of the presentation one of the researchers admitted that if he were to choose between being shot or stunned he’d rather be stunned.

On January 20th 2010 a five year study of officer involved shootings was prepared for the Chief. From 2005 through 2009 there were 15 officer involved shootings resulting in death or injury. Of the 15, eight died and seven survived. Of those, 4 are considered “suicide by cop”. Each of those deaths could likely have been prevented by stunning and subduing the person, but we won’t ever know.

We do know that every single one of the people shot by officers that died was on drugs and usually more than one. Most were found to be on alcohol and either meth, cocaine or opiates. According to the study, these are the people more likely to die in that first year from cardiac arrest. The choice is to either stun the person and if their heart stops, revive them, or shoot a bullet into them and rush them to SF General Hospital for surgery to fix the wound(s) made by the bullets.

It seems clear that the SFPD should be allowed any tool that can be used to effect the submission and arrest of a person that is high on drugs and alcohol and threatening the officer. We have equipped them with the non-lethal tools of pepper spray, billy-clubs and bean bag shooting shotguns. We’ve equipped them with lethal weapons, both side arms and shot-guns. Why deny the creation of a policy for less-lethal tools?

Here is a typical scenario: a call for service goes out, a person high on drugs and alcohol is approached by officers who see a weapon. The officers demand that the weapon be put down and to surrender, the person doesn’t comply, the level of threat increases. The officer draws a weapon and tries verbal persuasion again. Of the fifteen above-cited shootings, six happened within five feet and eight were over in 2.5 minutes. Having a less lethal tool can save lives and reduce lawsuits.

So what happened that evening at the Commission? It seems clear that the Chief should have been granted the opportunity to draft a policy on the deployment of this less lethal option. It seems clear that there were a number of Commissioners making political moves that night. Political moves, not for the protection of the citizens of the City, but to enhance individual reputations and to make political book with the elected officials to whom they owe their positions on the Commission. It also appears to have been political theater, where appointed officials take umbrage with the popularity of the person hired by the previous board by delivering a small slap to the wrists.

San Franciscans like to have high hopes for our citizen boards and commissions. It might actually be time to engage in a little political theater of our own and deliver a small slap to the wrists of the Police Commission, reminding them for whom they work. (Hint: it isn’t any sitting supervisor or elected official.)

Jed Lane is a civically engaged Realtor, Westside native and current resident of Miraloma Park. He can be reached at jed@westsideobserver.com

April 2010