Red & Ted Talk Tasers

TED: Red! What the hell is going on with Tasers in San Francisco? I saw on the news back in November that something called the “Police Commission” voted to approve the use of Tasers by SFPD cops. But THEN this past week I read something that says the SF Police Officers Association is putting an initiative about Tasers on the June election ballot. I have so many questions: What on earth is the Police Commission? And if they already voted to approve Tasers, why is the cop union sponsoring a ballot initiative in June? On top of that, I don’t really understand the whole Taser thing in general! If they’re a good thing, why don’t SF cops already have them?

RED: I totally understand — it’s hard to pull the signal from the noise on Tasers. First, let me answer the easy question: the Police Commission is a citizen board based in City Hall that sets Police Department policy and has oversight on some SFPD disciplinary matters. There are seven members on the Commission, four appointed by the Mayor’s office and three appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

TED: Okay, so they voted to approve Tasers back in November of last year, right?

RED: Yeah, it was a 4–3 vote, with all the Mayor’s appointees voting FOR Tasers and all the Supervisors’ appointees voting AGAINST Tasers. It was a really contentious hearing.

TED: So what’s the deal with Tasers? I saw that London Breed came out in support of them. She basically said it’s better to be shot with a Taser than it is to be shot with a gun, and, uh, doesn’t that make sense?

RED: Unfortunately, like many things that London Breed says, that’s just ill-informed nonsense. It’s really dangerous to think that our only options when encountering the police are to be shot by (a) a deadly weapon that fires bullets or (b) a deadly weapon that fires electrical bursts. Both of them are still… being shot by a deadly weapon.

TED: What do you mean, “deadly weapon?” I thought the whole point of Tasers is that they’re non-lethal! I saw some coverage after the anniversary Mario Woods’ shooting by SFPD saying that if the cops had had Tasers and not just guns, then Mario would still be alive. Isn’t that true?

RED: Maybe. Maybe not. There have been over a thousand documented cases of Tasers killing people. Just. Tasers. It’s a fairytale that Tasers are non-lethal. In some cases, sure, Tasers don’t kill the people they hit, but if over 1,000 people die from the same weapon it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to call that weapon “lethal.”

TED: 1,000 is a lot of people! I mean, it makes sense that something that can knock you out with an electrical charge might be dangerous, but I didn’t think it could kill you.

RED: If you want a more local example: on January 18th, just down the road from us, Warren Ragudo’s family called the Daly City Police Department because they worried he was on drugs and becoming manic. They were hoping the police would take Warren to jail or to the hospital, as they had in the past. But instead of taking the time to talk Warren down, the police just Tased him. That Taser burst killed Warren. Warren Ragudo should be alive today, but a Taser killed him.

TED: That’s awful! But what about police shootings? Shouldn’t cops having Tasers mean that there would be fewer shootings with guns? Tasers give cops another option besides using a gun!

RED: Sadly, that’s another fairytale spun by the police department and the folks who manufacture Tasers. Turns out, recent evidence from Taser use in Chicago and earlier evidence from a UCSF study show that when cops get Tasers, they still shoot the SAME NUMBER of people with guns and bullets.

TED: What?!? Why does that happen?

RED: Think of a Taser as a catalyst for escalation. There are lots of situations where a cop used to have to deescalate a situation, be patient, or talk it out with a person. Now, cops have a weapon they reach for instead. And you know what happens when you bring a weapon to a conversation? It escalates the hell out of a situation that might otherwise have ended peacefully.

TED: So what’s the deal with this Police Officers Association ballot initiative? If they’re already getting Tasers, why do they want people to vote on them… getting Tasers?

RED: The ballot initiative is related to the outcomes of that November Police Commission meeting where, yes, they approved the use of Tasers, but there were a few outcomes that cops don’t like: (1) the Commission said the earliest the cops could get Tasers was in December 2018; (2) that official policy for Taser use would be formulated by the Commission, with community input; and (3) the Board of Supervisors would still have to vote on funding the purchase of Tasers, which is millions of dollars.

TED: And what does the cop’s ballot initiative do then?

RED: It would do a few things: (1) Cops would get Tasers immediately; (2) it would allow the cops themselves to set the policy of use for Tasers, with no community input; and (3) it would force the Board of Supervisors to fully fund Tasers, no matter what.

TED: That second one, about the “policy of use” — what does that mean?

RED: Well, if their ballot initiative is successful, the policy that cops would implement for themselves would be way more expansive than one created with community input. Cops could use Tasers against people who are, in their minds, “actively resisting,” which, to a cop, could mean someone who is running away. Or someone who is “verbally signalling an intention to avoid being taken into custody,” a.k.a. just giving a cop a hard time.

TED: Yeesh, cops really want Tasers.

RED: Yup. It’s really frustrating that they keep pushing for Tasers, despite being tasked with implementing deescalation training. But I guess our militarized police force never saw a problem they couldn’t find a weapon to solve. And it’s almost like there’s some group with a vested interest here, some company that might stand to make millions of dollars if cops in SF get Tasers. Oh, wait…

TED: So what can we do now?

RED: For one thing, we can work against and vote down this absolutely horrible ballot initiative in June. For another, we can hold our leaders accountable and make sure that police oversight is real oversight. And we can keep offering support and solidarity to communities that disproportionately face police brutality and misconduct.

Editors’ note: if you’re interested in police reform, abolition, or other Justice-related issues, please reach out to SF DSA’s Justice Committee to learn more about getting involved.