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Mayoral hopefuls split over whether to arm SFPD officers with Tasers

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(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Candidates running for mayor in June after the sudden death of Ed Lee last week will likely have to take a stance on one of the most divisive issues in San Francisco — whether to arm police with stun guns.

That’s because the San Francisco Police Officers Association is gathering signatures to place a measure on the same ballot requiring the San Francisco Police Department to budget for the controversial electroshock devices, commonly known as Tasers.

Potential mayoral candidates are already showing signs of policy differences on the issue. So far, the growing list of hopefuls includes Supervisor Jane Kim, former Supervisor Angela Alioto, and homeless advocate Amy Farah Weiss.

The issue has long split San Francisco between those who argue police need the devices as a less-lethal alternative to firearms, and those who worry officers will use them excessively. The debate has spanned more than a decade and four different police chiefs.

“It’s getting to be a little bit ridiculous that we are the only major metro in the country outside of Boston that does not have Tasers,” said SFPOA President Martin Halloran.

The SFPOA began gathering signatures after the Police Commission voted Nov. 4 to allow the use of Tasers come December 2018, when the department will have had a new use-of-force policy in effect for two years.

“My fear is that they will kick the can down the road even further,” Halloran said, noting that the Police Commission still has to approve a policy for officers to use the devices.

The proposed ballot measure would authorize SFPD to purchase stun guns for every officer and allow officers to use the devices if they are trained and meet several other requirements. It would also require SFPD to request during the city budget process that San Francisco appropriate funds for the devices each year.

Kim, the District 6 representative on the Board of Supervisors who pulled papers to run for mayor Wednesday, said she does not support arming officers with Tasers because San Francisco is still reforming the Police Department.

“I’ve long held the position of not permitting Tasers within SFPD,” Kim said. “I’m always open to hearing arguments for it.”

Police Chief Bill Scott is working to meet 272 recommendations for SFPD from the U.S. Department of Justice, which reviewed the department after the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods in December 2015. Among the findings was that SFPD consider equipping officers with stun guns.

“We need to be able to prove to our citizens that we are completely invested in the reforms recommended by our Justice Department, and by our chief,” Kim said.

Alioto, another mayoral hopeful who served on the Board of Supervisors between 1988 and 1997 and unsuccessfully ran for mayor twice before, said she already signed a petition for the measure to be placed on the ballot.

“It’s really important that the police officers have an alternative to a gun,” Alioto said. “I don’t understand the opposition’s argument that it’s more dangerous.”

Alioto said claims that police will use stun guns excessively are “unfounded.”

“It makes it sound like police officers are out there just to hurt people,” Alioto said. “There are bad apples in every group, but San Francisco has had a formidable Police Department for more than a century.”

Alioto said the Woods shooting would have ended differently if police had Tasers. Woods had his back to a wall and a knife in his hand when officers surrounded him and opened fire.

“They need the Tasers as an alternative as soon as possible,” Alioto said.

Weiss, who unsuccessfully ran against Lee in his 2015 re-election bid, said police need de-escalation training, not another weapon.

“It’s about using the right tools for the job,” Weiss said. “If you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you think the tool is a gun or a Taser to use, then you’re thinking about force.

“We want people to be thinking about de-escalation first,” she added.

Just over a third of SFPD officers have received Crisis-Intervention Training since 2011, according to the department. The program trains officers to create time and space with suspects in crisis.

Weiss said police should travel with de-escalation teams of community members who can handle crises without weapons. She said she frequently visits homeless encampments at night and unarmed because she has de-escalation training.

Like Alioto, Weiss also said police could have resolved the Woods incident differently, but for another reason.

“If I were part of that police squad, I probably would have said, ‘Let me handle this,’ and have the police be 10 feet behind me and say ‘Hey, what’s going on. What’s your name?’” Weiss said.

As mayor, Weiss said she would appoint Police Commission members who “are on the side of community well-being.” The Police Commission supported the use of Tasers with a 4-3 vote.

Halloran said he is “not greatly concerned” about having a mayor who does not support officers using Tasers. According to Halloran, polling shows 78 percent of San Francisco voters want to equip officers with the devices.

“I would hope that the Board of Supervisors and whoever the mayor is would honor the wishes of San Francisco voters,” Halloran said.

Lee supported Tasers and appointed Scott, a Taser proponent, as police chief.

As for whether the police union would endorse a candidate who does not support the Taser effort, Halloran said, “We’re going to have to wait and see.”

As of Thursday, there are seven other mayoral hopefuls who have taken the first step to become a candidate, including former State Sen. Mark Leno. Leno was not immediately available for comment.

Acting Mayor London Breed also did not respond to a request for comment.

Candidates can file to run for mayor until Jan. 9.

S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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