The San Francisco Police Commission approved a policy governing how and when city police officers can use Tasers on Wednesday, moving closer to equipping officers with the stun guns after years of controversy. But San Francisco’s debate over Tasers is still far from over.
The commission voted 6-1 in favor of the new policy after spending several hours hammering out the final details and listening to dozens of public comments, with some speakers still objecting to arming officers with Tasers, or Conducted Energy Devices, at all and others trying to exert some last minute influence on the policy.
One particularly contentious area concerned the use of Tasers on certain vulnerable populations, such as when the person is a child, obviously pregnant, elderly, frail, or has a serious medical condition. The policy adopted Wednesday instructs officers to weigh whether the risk of using Tasers in these instances is appropriate.
The San Francisco Bar Association, one of several groups consulted to draft the policy, sought to have the use of Tasers banned for such groups except when deadly force would be authorized. But Police Chief Bill Scott argued this would remove a force option for officers, potentially causing them to escalate to deadly force prematurely.
“It’s a high risk population, but there is a less-lethal option available, why would you take that away?” Scott said.
David Rizk from the Bar Association clarified during the public comment period that the suggested language would not remove Tasers as an option. “We aren’t encouraging deadly force. These are populations that are likely to die, it’s like using a gun on them,” Rizk said.
Commissioner Bill Ong Hing suggested a compromise where Tasers would be the last use of force option before deadly force for such people, but only Commissioner Petra DeJesus indicated she would support the revision.
Scott said the policy includes some provisions that few, if any, other jurisdictions have adopted, such as forming an electronic control device review board that would regularly post summaries of Taser use on its website.
Wednesday’s vote marks a key milestone in the department’s efforts to adopt Tasers, but the policy adopted by the commission may not ultimately govern officers’ use of the devices.
The San Francisco Police Officers Association has placed a measure on the June ballot, Proposition H, that would enact a much less restrictive policy than what the Police Commission passed Wednesday.
It includes none of the considerations for vulnerable groups and allows officers to use Tasers for “resolving encounters with subjects who are actively resisting, assaultive, or exhibiting any action likely to result in serious bodily injury or death of another person, themselves or a police officer.”
Scott has said he is opposed to the ballot measure, saying that the measure would create a policy that could not be adjusted through established processes.
Mayor Mark Farrell has previously said he supports the measure, citing delays in the commission’s drafting of a policy. However following the commission’s vote, Farrell released a statement in support of the approved policy.
“We need to provide our officers with every tool and resource available to keep our communities safe. Having less-lethal options such as CEDs will allow the SFPD to carry out their mission of protecting the sanctity of life above else,” Farrell said.
“I have always said that I would support a CED policy that works best for the community and for our officers, and the plan approved by the Police Commission does that,” he said.
The San Francisco Police Department is one of only a few departments in the country that is not already equipped with Tasers. Even some other law enforcement agencies operating in San Francisco, such as the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and the BART Police Department, use them.
The police department has sought to win approval for the use of Tasers for more than 10 years. While the commission has taken up the issue several times, it has frequently backed down in the face of strong opposition from activists, who argue that Tasers are potentially lethal and used far more frequently than guns.
However, a voluntary U.S. Department of Justice Review completed in 2016 included the adoption of Tasers in its 272 recommendations for reform, bolstering the department’s case.
In November, the commission voted 4-3 to arm police with Tasers starting in December 2018, but did not immediately adopt a policy. In February, the commission approved a budget that included $3.5 million to purchase and implement Tasers.