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Poll: 78% back stun guns for SFPD, but opponents claim poll is political

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The idea of providing San Francisco police officers with Tasers has been controversial. A survey conducted by the Chamber of Commerce showed strong support for the weapons. (Courtesy photo)
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San Franciscans approve of their Police Department, think its officers should be given stun guns and don’t see crime as a major citywide issue — even though many believe it has gotten worse in recent years.

Such are the results of a recent poll commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce, which asked 500 registered voters in San Francisco about their thoughts on major issues impacting The City, including homelessness, the economy and transportation.

The poll, which included several questions about the Police Department and crime, was also questioned by some as a political campaign pushing for a certain outcome of a long controversial topic in The City — stun guns.

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The poll asked: “Many large cities give their police officers Taser devices as a non-lethal alternative to hand guns when confronted with a violent or mentally ill suspect. These devices are currently not used in San Francisco. Would you support or oppose authorizing the Chief of Police to issue police officers Tasers?”

According to Chamber spokesperson Juliana Bunim, the question was penned by the business organization and then vetted by the pollster.

The controversial devices — which opponents call unsafe weapons that do not reduce police violence, and proponents call a nonlethal tool police need so fewer people are shot — have been disputed in San Francisco for years.

This poll is no exception.

The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent, found that 78 percent of respondents support giving stun guns to police, while 17 oppose the idea and 5 percent don’t know how they feel.

The poll found that 60 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the police, and 31 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Crime has gotten worse, said 41 percent, while 44 percent said they don’t know and 15 percent said it’s gotten better. Still, only 8 percent of poll respondents said that gangs, drugs and crime are major issues in San Francisco.

Some are questioning whether the result might have wavered if the question had been phrased differently.

“I think the answers would change if the facts on Tasers were presented to the people polled, including that Tasers do not result in a reduction in officer-involved shootings or use-of-force,” said Angela Chan, a former police commissioner.

Former ACLU lawyer John Crew agreed, adding that polls should not be a deciding factor in complicated policy decisions like whether to equip police with stun guns.

“It’s framing the question to get the answer that you want,” said Crew, who noted that the Chamber has for some time backed stun guns, which is in line with the Police Officers Association campaign. “What we have here is a political campaign.”

David Binder, whose firm conducted the poll, said that the question was meant to be as neutral as possible.

“We attempted to give it some kind of framing,” said Binder, who added that it was meant to be a simple statement of the facts. “I think it was a neutral framing.”

Still, Binder admitted that the results might have differed if the poll had included details about the weapon’s potential dangers. “These numbers could change.”

The Police Officers Association has consistently called for stun guns. In fact, such calls have come after nearly every publicized incident, whether it’s a shooting or a scuffle.

But such calls bely other findings on the dangers of the devices. Just last year, the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Criminal Justice Task Force found that a number of independent studies have pointed to the potential fatal repercussions of using a Taser, and cautioned The City on their use.

“The Task Force concluded that the medical evidence on Taser/CEDs … suggests the weapon is indeed lethal, especially when used incorrectly or on vulnerable members of the population, including but not limited to those suffering from mental health and/or drug related problems,” the task force found.

The task force said the department should finish implementing its reforms before introducing a new and controversial force option like stun guns. A new use-of-force policy emphasizing de-escalation was passed last year after several high-profile and controversial fatal police shootings. Since then the department has been focused on implementing a laundry list of reforms centering on transparency and oversight that are meant to rebuild the trust of the community.

Police Chief William Scott spoke to the POA in mid-February about the need to come up with a plan to bring Tasers to the department, and noted the recent federal collaborative review found that the department should consider stun guns.

“One of the recommendations of the Department of Justice COPS (Community Oriented Policing Service) review of the SFPD was for the Police Commission to explore the use of ECD’s (electronic controlled device) by SFPD officers,” Police Department spokesperson Officer Grace Gatpandan said in a statement.

“ Chief Scott plans to have that discussion with the Police Commission,” Gatpandan said. “He believes that SFPD officers need option(s) with respect to intermediate use of force.”

According to its 2015 use-of-force report, the Los Angeles Police Department — where Scott spent the majority of his career — used stun guns more than 1,000 times that year.

GIVING TASERS TO SFPD OFFICERS
78% support
17% oppose
5% don’t know

Source: The Dignity Health CityBeat Poll was conducted among 500 San Francisco voters in February 2017 by David Binder Research for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

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