Police chief launches campaign to outfit department with stun guns such as Tasers

Mike Koozmin/SF ExaminerSF Police Chief Greg Suhr

The seemingly never-ending debate over whether to outfit San Francisco police officers with devices capable of shooting 50,000 volts of electricity through the body is recharging once again.

The Police Department’s campaign, which would give stun guns to 103 officers specially trained to handle mentally ill people as part of a pilot program, is kicking into high gear, beginning with a planned Jan. 9 community meeting, Police Chief Greg Suhr said Thursday.

Suhr’s predecessors George Gascón and Heather Fong both tested San Francisco’s political waters with proposals to outfit officers with the electric stun guns often called Tasers, only to succumb to fierce political opposition.

During a Thursday hearing of the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee called by Supervisor John Avalos, that same opposition emerged yet again.

“We should be creating a culture of crisis intervention,” said Supervisor Christina Olague. “Not creating a culture of using a weapon, which is a Taser.”

Avalos said The City would be “going backward” by equipping officers with such weapons.

“We haven’t done the work on developing the crisis response that we can do in the department,” Avalos said. “I worry that we are moving toward a lethal cliff that we don’t need to reach at this point.”

But Suhr said he felt it was his “moral obligation” to outfit his officers with stun guns after July 18, when an officer fatally shot a man who allegedly attacked a co-worker at the TCHO chocolate factory with a box cutter.

“It breaks my heart both for the family of the man that was in crisis and for the officer,” Suhr said. “So I just felt it was my duty to bring it forward and let the public be heard, and have the commission vote it up or down on behalf of the department.”

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Coalition on Homelessness, say devices such as stun guns, while billed as nonlethal, can cause injuries and death. They worry that officers will use the devices unnecessarily, exposing The City to lawsuits.

“San Francisco doesn’t want Tasers,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, head of the Coalition on Homelessness. “And San Francisco doesn’t need Tasers. Instead of prioritizing the trainings and the culture shift that’s necessary to save lives of our most vulnerable populations, Chief Suhr is instead promoting a new shiny lethal weapon.”

But Mikail Ali, who leads the Police Department’s crisis intervention training, had another viewpoint.
“Words do not always work,” Ali said. “Our officers need to be equipped with the necessary tools.”

Ali noted that Suhr, like police chiefs before him, called for stun guns following officer-involved shootings.

“Our shooting incident that took place in July, we feel in our hearts and minds that had we had electronic control weapon systems in place and deployed, that person would be alive today and back to the road to recovery,” Ali said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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