Cultural shift long overdue for San Francisco police

Often in the wake of tragedy, we can find some solace in the rebuilding of community, in the work to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again. After the devastating shooting of Mario Woods, we are poised as a city to completely revamp not only the way force is used by the San Francisco Police Department, but to transform police department culture as well.

Our country recognizes there is a huge gulf between what is acceptable in terms of use of force by community standards and those standards set out legally in police departments. Police Chief Greg Suhr has indicated he is interested in changing the department general order to reflect a movement nationally to reengineer use of force, but then calls to question the entire proposal by stating he wants to introduce a new weapon, specifically electronic control weapons as part of these reforms.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released a report, entitled “Re-engineering Training on Police Use of Force.” In this report, they state, “As the PERF Board of Directors understood nearly a year ago in the immediate aftermath of the demonstrations in Ferguson, there has been a fundamental change in how the American people view the issue of police use of force.”

They caution many of the recommendations will be hard to hear “because leading police chiefs are saying that our practices need to change dramatically.”

In summary, they say “it’s time for an overhaul of police training, policy, supervision, and culture on use of force” and emphasize that verbal de-escalation is one of many ways in which the training of police officers can be improved.

In San Francisco, we are not only one the top cities nationally for officer-involved shootings, but have a particularly bad track record on shooting individuals in psychiatric crisis, with more than half of officer-involved shootings falling into this category.

In 2012, the Police Commission rejected electronic control weapons in favor of implementing a Crisis Intervention Team. The concept is to have a trained team of skilled officers respond to individuals in psychiatric crisis, with the understanding that they may not respond to commands. The team would have a CIT officer in charge of developing a tactical plan, and the officers would use verbal de-escalation, time and creating physical space. Already, a lot of progress has been made, and use of force incidents have decreased since the training has been implemented, and the chief has committed to training the entire force. This is only a small part of CIT, however. What is still missing is the development of the team, which includes among many pieces, changing the general orders away from using force when individuals do not respond to rendered commands.

When the Police Commission looks at changing the written polices that regulate police responses, known as use of force general orders this month, there will be a radical opportunity for systemic change. They will have a choice between a move away from weapons, or a move to add more weapons. The Electronic Control Weapons (ECW), also known by their brand name “Tasers,” will be considered.

ECW use by police actually increases the rate of fatal shootings. A 2009 UCSF study found that fatal shootings by police more than double in the first year after police departments adopt them. In the following years, the number of shootings decreases, but still stays above what it had been before their use.

This is especially true for vulnerable people such as those with mental illnesses. In fact, in the first year after ECW get implemented, sudden deaths in custody increase more than 500 percent. The number of sudden deaths in custody remains 155 percent of what it had been for years after the first.

Most of the research that claims ECW’s are safe was commissioned by Taser International (the company that sells Tasers), and/or were tests done on healthy adults. There is a great body of evidence that ECW’s are very unsafe. For example, they cannot be used safely on youth or small stature people, individuals with heart conditions, elderly, pregnant women, or individuals on a host of medications. Officers must have defibrillators in their cars, and be trained how to use them. The weapons shoot out probes that enter the human body and then must be removed by medical personnel, and the individual must then be transported to a hospital for medical examination.

Those in favor of these devices claim they would decrease fatalities, as they are less lethal than a gun. However, rarely are these weapons used by police on armed suspects, as the weapons necessitate a close range in order for the probes to attach themselves to the human body.

The United States is unique among western countries for the heavy arming of officers. Places like the United Kingdom have much to teach us about policing without the use of force — as they use repositioning of officers, shields and verbal de-escalation. As a result, safety among both officers and the public improve. Systemic change is often met with resistance in any system — people are unwilling to admit that their current practice is wrong. While many of the dinosaurs running the Police Officers Association, and some of its members, are unwilling to change, the rest of San Francisco is clearly ready for it. After all, the most powerful weapons a police officer has are her heart and her brain. It is long overdue for a cultural shift that embraces the sanctity of life of both our police officers and our public.

Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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