Police Commission Approves Tasers, Ignoring Community

But with a one-year delay, the fight is far from over.

It was telling that after voting to arm the SFPD with Tasers, most of the San Francisco Police Commission decided to sneak out of City Hall through a rear exit. Friday, November 3 marked the fifth vote on “conducted energy devices” in the last decade and a half, and perhaps the most contentious — met with large-scale protests, the commission barred hundreds of audience members from the supposedly public hearing, which lasted into the early hours of the morning and left many in the community feeling their voices had been ignored.

As we have discussed here before, Tasers are not the life-saving devices their manufacturer, Axon, claims. Numerous independent studies have found them to be deadly, unreliable, and rather than reducing the number of officer-involved killings, actually lead to a dramatic uptick in fatal shootings in the years immediately following their adoption. They are used disproportionately on people of color, and often serve to escalate potentially violent situations rather than defuse them. They don’t protect cops, and they certainly don’t protect citizens.

Axon Website

With that in mind, it was no surprise that Friday’s meeting saw massive turnout from community members and organizations like the Anti Police-Terror Project, the Frisco 500, Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community – Justice 4 Mario Woods, the Coalition on Homelessness, the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America, and others. Initially meeting for a rally on the steps of City Hall, we intended to make it clear to the commission that Tasers were not welcome in our city.

One-Sided Testimony

The meeting began with expert testimony on various aspects of Taser safety and effectiveness — but the qualifications of these experts varied. Some were academic researchers and doctors, whose testimony highlighted issues like the overrepresentation of people of color and the mentally ill in Taser-related incidents, and the dangers of using Tasers on people with heart conditions. Others, like Michael Brave, an attorney employed by Axon, had a more explicitly vested interest in seeing the resolution pass. He spent his ten minutes explaining how the laundry list of safety warnings issued about Tasers were, in fact, nothing to worry about at all. If we were to heed every warning we ever read on a label, he mused with a chuckle, we would never drive our cars or take prescription medications.

The panel of experts seemed heavily weighted in favor of Tasers in general. Three were police officers, one was a paid police consultant, and one (Brave) was an active employee of Axon, while the only explicit representative of community interests was Sheryl Davis, Executive Director of the SF Human Rights Commission. Disappointingly, even her testimony seemed a bit lukewarm when it came to conveying the strength of opposition at previous community meetings.

After the experts had spoken, Police Commission President Julius Turman opened the floor to public comment, and audience members lined up in a queue that wrapped nearly all the way around the chamber. As had been the case in the handful of meetings preceding this one, most appeared ready to speak in opposition to adopting Tasers.

Early on in this process, the commission was treated to a surprise visit from District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who delivered an impassioned speech against arming the SFPD with another deadly weapon — especially when, as admitted by an officer during expert testimony, the department had not yet drafted a policy outlining exactly how and when they would be used. Fewer, whose husband is a retired SFPD officer, was the only prominent elected official to attend the hearing.

Flight of the Commissioners

Soon, however, the meeting took a turn for the disorderly. When Maria Cristina Gutierrez, one of the Frisco Five hunger strikers, spoke for slightly longer than her allotted two minutes, she was quickly approached by several of the deputies who seemed poised to forcibly remove her from the podium (this time, it seemed, cutting the microphone as they had for other speakers was deemed insufficient). The crowd broke into chants of “Don’t touch her” and “Let her talk,” leading the Sheriff’s Department to send in even more deputies. After a few attempts to restore order, Commissioner Turman declared that the meeting was now in recess. The video feeds were cut, the commissioners left the chamber through a rear exit, and we were left with no audience but a line of disinterested-looking police.

A line of deputies defends the empty chamber from peaceful protestors. Photo: Will Shenton

What followed was something of a community meeting in its own right. Most people remained in the room — frankly, it was difficult to leave, as the Sheriff’s Department had locked all but one of the doors — and those waiting in line simply delivered their comments to the crowd instead of the absent commissioners. The speakers included a diverse array of activists, medical professionals, students, and at least one person whose friend had been killed by a Taser. We even held our own mock vote, led by Darby Thomas of DSA SF, resulting (unsurprisingly) in a unanimous rejection of Tasers. All the while, a crowd grew outside the chamber, and we could hear periodic chants of “Let us in,” to no avail.

As things eventually wound down in the legislative chamber, we learned that the commissioners had quietly relocated and resumed their meeting in a much smaller hearing room on the fourth floor. While there was some question about the legality of such a move, it was later made clear by the City Attorney that there wasn’t much we could do about it either way. Needless to say, we quickly marched upstairs to join them.

Behind Closed Doors

Unsurprisingly, we found that the entrance to this ostensibly public meeting was blocked by yet more deputies. They had set up a velvet rope barrier along the length of the hallway, and we were informed that the commission would only be allowing five speakers into the room at a time for public comment. This was met by more chants of “Let us in” and “Show your face,” but once it became clear that neither of those things were going to happen, the crowd settled in for what would be a very long night.

Over the next few hours, dozens of people delivered their comments to the commission, though none were allowed to remain in the room despite there being plenty of open seats. All told, only one of them spoke in favor of adopting Tasers.

Darby Thomas, one of the few speakers who managed to get a seat inside, surrounded by empty chairs. Photo: Darby Thomas

Partway through the hearing, Commissioner Petra DeJesus, a staunch advocate of police accountability and reform throughout her tenure, left the meeting to stand with the protestors in the hallway. She felt the process had become illegitimate the moment it moved behind closed doors, and refused to participate until the vote was called. As the public comments and eventual expert Q&A dragged on towards midnight, we were forced to watch the hearing on our laptops despite being no more than ten feet from the chamber.

The Vote

Finally, when most still in attendance were close to nodding off, the vote was called and the crowd perked up. Commissioner Sonia Melara, an unapologetic Taser advocate, seemed impatient. Commissioner Robert Hirsch, the supposed swing vote, proposed an amendment: if the motion passed, there would be a one-year delay before Tasers were adopted. It was accepted.

Commissioner Bill Ong Hing expressed his objection to the motion, as did Commissioner Turman — both argued that the SFPD needed time to properly implement their de-escalation training before being given a new weapon. DeJesus’ comments were characteristically impassioned, and her closing words reverberated through the chamber: “Shame on all of you.”

In the end, Commissioners Melara, Marshall, Mazzuco, and Hirsch voted in favor, while DeJesus, Turman, and Ong Hing voted against. The motion passed four to three. The votes fell squarely along political lines; all in favor were appointees of Mayor Ed Lee, while all opposed had been appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

When the news made its way into the hall (after a few minutes’ delay, as we were still stuck watching the online stream), more chants erupted. “Shame!” and “Show your face!” echoed through the now-abandoned building, while the commissioners remained in the chamber and the line of deputies looked on stoically. Too scared to face the angry crowd, it seemed, the commissioners once again fled through a back door.

The Fight Goes On

All told, the meeting took more than seven hours. By the time a deputy smugly told us that while he “appreciated our protest,” it was time to clear out, most of us were exhausted, dejected, and furious at the commission’s blatant disregard for the will of the community. We made our way towards the exit wanting nothing more than to head to a bar and sleep the whole thing off.

But on the front steps of City Hall, people began delivering hopeful speeches. One longtime activist, who had been fighting the adoption of Tasers for more than 13 years, said that this was the largest turnout he’d ever seen for a police commission hearing by an order of magnitude. Others pointed out that a year-long delay wasn’t anything to sneeze at, and listed the avenues still available for us to stop the policy before it went into effect—primarily, lobbying the Board of Supervisors to defund Tasers in the city budget.

Perhaps most importantly, every group in attendance that day left with a greater sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. The fight against Tasers is just one, small step in the fight against the institutionalized racism that has allowed the SFPD and other departments to murder citizens with impunity. But we had made ourselves heard, and we were stronger for having stood side by side.

One final chant rang through the halls as we went our separate ways: “We’ll be back.”

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