Police officers in the city might soon be able to rely on more than a baton or gun in the pressure of the moment. The San Francisco Police Commission gave approval, with a vote of 6 to 1 Feb. 23, to study the use of Tasers or other less-than-lethal weapons.
In approximately three months, the police department will present the findings of its tests to the commission, said commission President Thomas Mazzucco.
SFPD officers who spoke at the meeting last week believe the commission’s approval is a step in the right direction.
Interim Police Chief Jeff Godown said issuing Tasers would protect both officers and suspects in aggressive encounters where verbal commands may fail.
“All I’m asking is for one more tool in the toolbox that will allow an officer to avoid shooting a person,” Godown said.
Commissioner Petra De Jesus, the only commissioner to vote against the approval, said the weapons are too dangerous and “would have a disproportionate impact on minorities being targeted.”
According to Angela Chan, one of the new commissioners, a study she read found fatal officer-involved shootings had more than doubled in the first year of Taser implementation by police departments in California.
“Using Tasers properly, the way they are designed, can kill anyone,” De Jesus said. “I don’t want our officers to go out to the field with a fallacy.”
Mesha Irizarry, who said SFPD officers shot her only child 48 times with the use of guns and killed him at the Sony Metreon in June 2001, disagreed with the commission’s approval and the police department’s argument that Tasers were the most effective less-than-lethal option.
Irizarry, coordinator of San Francisco’s Education Not Incarceration organization, said the police department does not need to issue more weapons to its officers to achieve safety between police and suspects.
“It’s about police misconduct and training (officers) to deal with the mentally ill,” Irizarry said, whose 23-year-old son Idris Stelley suffered from emotional problems.
She said people always ask if she thinks her son would have been saved if San Francisco officers had been equipped with stun guns.
“My answer is, he would have been zapped to death,” she said.
In an attempt to convince the commission of the safety and effectiveness of Tasers, three police officers shared their recent encounters with uncooperative suspects, claiming that a stun gun would have made their experiences less dangerous.
“Please equip officers with appropriate tools and trust the officers they will use the tools to protect the city,” said Officer Matt Friedman, who was left unconscious and on work disability by a drunken 20-year-old gang member at Garfield Park last year.
According to a study by the National Institute of Justice in 2005, police officers who are equipped with Tasers are 70 percent less likely to suffer injuries when confronting an aggressive suspect than officers without stun guns, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
“There’s no magical pill or weapon when it comes to use-of-force, but the Taser is readily available in dynamic situations,” said (a speaker) for the SFPD Special Weapons and Tactics Skin.
Last March, the commission voted 4-3 against a proposal by then-Police Chief George Gascon to study the use of Tasers by the department, citing liability and safety concerns.
The second time around, the seven-member commission reached its near-unanimous decision to advance the study of less-than-lethal weapons at the conclusion of a six hour-meeting that allowed comments and presentations from local activists, and use-of-force and study experts.
Currently, San Francisco is one of only four of the nation’s major cities with a population of 500,000 or greater that does not employ Tasers, said Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International Inc.
“We need one more weapon to protect officers and people,” Mazzucco said. “The gap between a firearm and baton needs to be closed.”