While campus police officers across California use pepper spray, guns, handcuffs and batons; SF State’s University Police Department officials propose another tool be added to their utility
belt — the Taser — which would make the campus one of the last in the California State University system to be patrolled by officers armed with conducted electrical weapons (CEWs).
Before this year, 17 CSU campuses were equipped with Tasers and now every campus has access to the weapon because of the chancellor’s office’s latest push for standardization across the system, according to Mike Uhlenkamp, director of media relations for the CSU system.
“As things change in our system, we update our policies,” Uhlenkamp said. “Before the order is issued, there is conversation with the leaders in the building and often with our campus presidents. We’re just trying to keep up with changing technology and changing times.”
Ellen Griffin, University spokesperson, was unable to confirm when UPD’s Taser proposal would be presented to the President’s cabinet — nor when it would be discussed and, or, approved for implementation — in time for publication.
Uhlenkamp made clear, this was not a mandatory directive from the chancellor’s office, but was instead a recommendation that all CSU campuses complied with.
The implementation of the system-wide Taser program began after the chancellor’s office received media and community inquiries asking about the disparity in Taser use throughout the CSU system, according to Nathan Johnson, former CSU system-wide chief law enforcement officer.
The CSU chancellor’s office released a system wide executive order in 2000, which outlines and authorizes weapons allowed for use by university police. This memorandum, executive order no. 756, approved the use of firearms, Tasers, tear gas, batons, bean bags, pepper balls and shotguns. However, the chancellor’s office stopped short of saying which weapon each campus should use, leaving that to the discretion of individual university presidents.
Stephanie Thara, CSU web communications specialist, indicated that each campus applies new rules and regulations from the chancellor’s office differently.
“It’s the choice of the campus president to determine how he or she wants to implement the order or directive,” Thara said. “The university president can delegate certain decisions, like what weapons will be made available to university police, to the leaders of that department or it can be the executive office that makes the decision.”
Johnson, who now works as the chief of police for Sonoma State University, believes the use of pepper spray and batons is becoming extinct.
“A huge factor in this decision was the fact that unlike the baton and pepper spray, the Taser did not use blunt force or chemicals to subdue violent offenders. In addition, the physical recovery from the use was almost immediately,” Johnson said. “The matter was taken to the CSU president’s council, and all the presidents unanimously agreed that the use of such devices should be system wide and not selected by individual campuses.”
Uhlenkamp said there was no specific incident or rise in crime that precipitated executive order no. 756, but that it was merely an update to keep campuses “on the same page.” The chancellor’s office hadn’t released a weapons-related executive order since 1975 prior to the 2000 memorandum.
Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications at Taser, said the presence of these CEWs on university campuses is not a new trend; it’s something that has been going on since the founding of the Taser company.
“The entire nation uses these weapons,” Tuttle said. “And university systems make up a lot of our market.”
Tuttle emphasizes the fact that UPD officers do the same work that a BART or San Francisco Police Department officers do.
Taser weapons are designed to have a neuromuscular incapacitating effect, meaning that a person shot with a Taser will lose their ability to perform any type of controlled movement.
In training, officers are taught to fire from a distance, as the weapon’s effect will be much greater than if a direct stun is applied to a person, according to Tuttle. A direct stun will cause impairment, but a shot fired from a distance (15 to 35 feet away depending on the weapon), will cause complete incapacitation.
Taser International, the company that manufactures the weapons, also provides a training program for instructors, technicians, investigators, law enforcement executives, risk managers and legal counsels known as “train the trainer.”
In order to complete training, SF State’s UPD will have to send a representative to a two-day training session with Taser International, complete an exam, then return to train the rest of the officers, according to Tuttle.
“We don’t want guys just standing there shooting at a target on the wall,” Tuttle said. “We put them in simulation suits, get their adrenaline going, then we put them in a scenario where they have to properly use the Taser. They actually have to decide whether or not to use the Taser and use good judgment in these real life examples.”
The Xpress was denied permission to observe SF State’s UPD’s initial training due to the need to train without “media scrutiny,” according to Griffin.
The most popular Taser units used by police departments today are the newest models, the Taser X26P and the Taser X2; although many universities police departments still work with the 2003 X26 model, according to Tuttle.
The units cost $800 to $900 each; depending on how advanced the model is, according to Tuttle. Most Taser products are bought through distributers that have “exclusives,” or distribution rights for an entire state.
Taser International’s statistics show more than 16,880 agencies throughout the world use Taser CEWs today and their weapons are deployed more than 900 times each day worldwide.
However, those thousands of agencies do not include San Francisco’s own police department. SFPD has applied to the police commission for approval of Taser usage several times throughout the last 10 years and has been voted down each time.
The SFPD won’t be providing any oversight for the University department’s use of Tasers.
The SFPD maintain radio communication with UPD, but have no other involvement with them unless there is a specific request for assistance.
Earl Lawson, chief of university police at California State University Monterey Bay, said proper training for Taser and other weapons use is essential for successful policing.
“There’s no such thing as a good tool,” said Lawson. “A tool is only as good as the hand you put it in. You have to train your personnel. This weapon still has a fairly high amount of force. The tool itself doesn’t do anything; you have to have a well trained department.”