In response to President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Task Force on Policing, the San Francisco Police Department began adopting many of its recommendations. The graphic killing of Mario Woods has intensified the department’s self-examination on how it can and must do better. We applaud the changes in policies and philosophies, as well as the advances in training at the academy.
The important reforms include better training, reporting and supervision each time a gun is drawn, expansion of the Crisis Intervention Team, creation of a new bureau to bring community policing to the forefront, and new training in implicit bias, cultural competency and procedural justice.
These are necessary steps to rebuild trust and legitimacy in the wake of a number of police shootings. A survey of youth by Jamestown Community Center recently reported that “police brutality” was at the very top of children’s concerns. These measures show that the department understands the importance of showing dignity, respect and compassion to the people it serves and rebuilding connections to the community.
A police department is only as good as the relationship it has with the community it serves. In San Francisco’s communities of color in particular, that relationship is in serious crisis. The introduction of Tasers right now would be a jarring misstep in the attempt to reestablish harmony between police and community and would undermine efforts to emphasize the importance of building rapport and de-escalation.
The effect of Tasers is not fully understood enough to know if they would be a better weapon than guns, but right now, we need more words, time, and understanding — we don’t need more weapons which will be used by the police against the people they are meant to protect.
There have been a number of studies of Tasers, but barely any have been independent. Heart doctors at UCSF set out to gauge the accuracy of 50 published studies on the potential dangers of using Taser products. They found that among the product safety studies they analyzed, the likelihood of a study concluding Taser devices are safe was 75 percent higher when the studies were either funded by the manufacturer or written by authors affiliated with the company, than when studies were conducted independently.
In their examination of data post-introduction of Tasers in municipalities across the country, the study found that fatal shootings by police more than doubled in the first year after adoption. In the following years, the numbers go down but remain higher than the pre-Taser time period. In-custody deaths skyrocket by 500 percent the first year after these devices were introduced. That number drops down in the following years, but again remains higher than before Tasers were introduced.
Individuals are not only severely injured but killed by these devices, and they have been banned in cities like Portland, after demonstrating extreme bias in their use. Because half of the SFPD officer-involved shootings are of individuals in psychiatric crisis, using Tasers instead of a gun likely would have the same fatal potential because of the medications in play.
Chief Greg Suhr has introduced language that allows the use of these devices by a limited number of officers and circumstances, however, it is believed by many community members that once introduced, they will be expanded to the rest of the department. This is the crux of the problem, there is enough doubt about these weapons, and their introduction is so contrary to the positive steps SFPD has taken to decrease the use of force, that an introduction of a new weapon at this time will only inflame distrust and harm the relationship that so many have worked to repair.
It is for these reasons that we urge the commission and the department to put the discussion of Tasers on hold and give de-escalation, new training and community policing a chance. The underlying philosophy of teaching officers to listen to people and take the time to talk things down, is undercut by a less-lethal weapon that can literally stop the heart from beating. We need to build real connections between officers and the communities they serve and Tasers will act only to short-circuit the path to true reform.
Victor Hwang and Petra de Jesus are members of the San Francisco Police Commission.