To succeed where his predecessors have failed, Police Chief Greg Suhr will have to overcome a strengthening message of opposition to his plan to outfit some officers with stun guns.
The last of three community meetings on the stun gun proposal, held by Suhr in collaboration with the Police Commission, is scheduled for this evening at the Bayview Opera House. The commission will use the input from the meetings as it makes a decision on whether some officers can use the devices, which are intended to immobilize people by delivering 50,000 volts of electricity.
The message from opponents has grown stronger and clearer since the first meeting was held Jan. 22. Numerous groups are voicing concerns over the proposal, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, National Lawyers Guild S.F. Bay Area Chapter and the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.
Stacy Umezu, who works at the LGBT advocacy group Community United Against Violence, said during the second public meeting, held Feb. 4, that, “Many of the people that we work with don’t have access to health care, mental health support, and are most likely the people who you will be interacting with the [stun guns].” The impact, she said, would be “terrifying.”
Suhr began his effort after a July incident in which a chocolate factory worker was fatally shot by a police officer after he allegedly attacked a colleague with a box cutter. Suhr wants to supply stun guns to a unit of officers — 118 officers, or 5 percent of the police force — who have undergone specialized training on how to deal with mentally ill people.
But some object to Suhr citing that incident as a motiving factor.
“There is little proof that the officer in that incident would have used a [stun gun] … if one had been available,” read a statement released last week by the local lawyers guild. “More relevant than that one example are the many examples of police interactions with residents daily, where officers don’t currently fire guns but would use a [stun gun] if available.”
The feedback also is informing the Police Department on how to create a general order dictating the use of stun guns should the proposal gain approval by the commission. Policy language meant to prohibit use on pregnant women, children, elderly people and very thin people can be tricky.
“Sometimes you can’t tell someone is pregnant,” Suhr said.
He also said the department is working on the best language to describe a child or a skinny person. A draft says the devices are meant to be used on a person who “reasonably presents an imminent threat to him or herself, the officers, or others on scene, and lesser force options are either not effective or not practicable.”
Requests by previous police chiefs to use the devices have been rejected.
“We realize that these weapons are called less lethal because they can in some instances cause serious injury or death,” Suhr said at the Feb. 4 meeting. “But they are certainly decidedly less lethal than a gun.”