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How the Police Commission and activists spanked the POA

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Capt. Alexa O’Brien of the San Francisco Police Department briefs the Police Commission on the latest homicide update during a meeting held at City Hall on Wednesday. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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The San Francisco Police Officers Association sued the Police Commission but lost the opening round when it was denied a temporary restraining order. That means the new use-of-force policy will be implemented: The carotid restraint is still banned; shooting at cars will not normally be allowed; and there will be no harpoon electrocution weapons, for now. The POA’s lawsuit will go to trial, but Judge Richard Ulmer said in denying the restraining order, “Based on what I’ve seen so far, I think The City is likely to win” at trial on the merits.

It almost ended differently.

The carotid restraint is a dangerous technique that leads accidentally — and “accidentally on purpose” (Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe,”) — to deadly windpipe chokeholds and broken necks, as the POA admitted in its lawsuit. The carotid hold, which shuts off jugular blood to the brain and is used in mixed martial arts takedowns, was rejected in June after eight months of hearings, as recommended by the Obama administration’s 21st Century Policing guidelines. Yet at the Police Commission meeting, days before the first court hearing on the POA lawsuit, there was a confusing attempt by a small group of commissioners to reinstate the carotid hold by a last-minute vote.

Why the attempt to reinstate it at the last moment? We had no clue. But strongly suspecting a secret deal, we swung into action. As the reinstate commissioners rambled on the dais, and our commissioner allies objected strenuously — they had not been consulted — we scribbled furiously. Just before the vote, we had a chance to make impromptu public comments.

We gave them hell, and the strong objections of the ACLU, San Franciscans for Police Accountability and citizen watchdogs convinced the sponsoring commissioner to vote against his own motion — a surprising outcome. The plan unraveled with a 4-3 vote. We won by the skin of our teeth.

When we learned the next day of the POA lawsuit, the smoke cleared. There had been a secret deal: A faction of commissioners would reinstate carotid hold, to be later traded out for Tasers, which are the “intermediate force option” the POA really wants. The reinstate faction was apparently so inordinately afraid of the POA lawsuit that they were willing to cave on an important policy decision it took a year to create.

The win on the carotid hold and shooting at cars is likely permanent. We will join the fight against the police union and file amicus briefs to make the court aware of the effect of its decisions on the community. But the Taser battle isn’t over.

Acting Police Chief Toney Chaplin is for Tasers. Former Chief Greg Suhr was for Tasers. The POA is strongly for Tasers. If incoming Chief Bill Scott weighs in for Tasers, we will have a problem, even though Tasers have been a “third rail” in San Francisco for years.

With a large population of homeless, the mentally ill and substance abusers, San Franciscans have consistently resisted harpoon electrocution weapons as the wrong intermediate force option. Tasers terrorize and can be deadly when used on those with health issues, in mental illness crisis or on powerful drugs. Used by rogue officers, Tasers can kill.

Two Georgia cops were just convicted of felony murder of a 24-year-old black man who they had chased and captured. The victim — handcuffed and sitting in a small creek — died of a heart attack after being Tased 14 times.

Beyond Tasers, a larger picture comes into focus. The Police Commission can stand up to the POA and win. Secret, last-minute deals are unnecessary and counterproductive. And most importantly, citizen activists can make a decisive difference.

Our group, SFPA, has only seven active and about 10 floating members. But we’ve attended almost every Police Commission meeting in the last year, made countless public comments, organized a panel discussion and attended events and news conferences. We are allied with, or members of, all of The City’s justice groups. We regularly lobby the mayor, the District Attorney, supervisors and Sacramento politicians. We research, write opinion pieces, do TV and radio interviews, have a social media presence and show up in court. It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve done nothing on our own, but activism makes a difference.

Now, a united Board of Supervisors, a Police Commission that is beginning to assert itself, a mayor who has decided to lead and organized justice groups in communities of color all create a consensus for transformational reform. The POA lawsuit is a last-ditch attempt to stop reform and defeat the consensus, but the police union is on the wrong side of history.

David Carlos Salaverry is one of the founders of San Franciscans for Police Accountability.

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