Tasers Lead to Tragedy, and the SFPD Shouldn’t Have Them

Last Tuesday, I filed into the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium with around a hundred other concerned citizens to make public comments on the proposed adoption of Taser weapons by the San Francisco Police Department. It was rather unlikely, and only through word of mouth, that I found myself there at all — the announcement of the meeting was buried deep in the Police Commission website.

It was evident from the beginning that the odds were stacked against any real community involvement in this highly consequential decision. At the door, the crowd was divided into quarters and directed to separate tables. Over the course of the night, an almost entirely unanimous front of committed activists would stand up for their rights as their voices, and the voices of their communities, resounded throughout the auditorium.

A hundred-odd slots for public comment is far from a statistically significant sample of a population of over 860,000, but that is what we were afforded. Yet the organization of the event was even more problematic than the poor community outreach. At my table, no police officials of significant rank were present — only two officers who sat silent and stone-faced.

We went around the table for an hour. In my group, only one older man voiced any support for Tasers, or “Conducted Energy Devices,” as they are euphemistically referred to in the Commission’s policy draft. All others presented a litany of damning statistics, ethical protestations, and personal anecdotes. One woman related the story of her relative’s death at the ends of a pair of Taser wires.

Opposition to the proposal — which is being brought to a vote for a fifth time, after the community’s fierce opposition torpedoed the first four — was unrelenting throughout the evening. For a wide variety of reasons, from the danger of the devices (over a thousand Taser-involved deaths since the early 2000s, per Reuters) to the financial cost ($20 million a year for San Francisco, not including lawsuits), to the devices’ pronounced tendency to escalate violence, the community overwhelmingly opposed the Police Commission’s effort. Frustration soon set in. After so many rounds of past opposition, it was wearying for committed activists, many of whom were people of color, to again stare down the possibility of their fellow citizens, their friends and families, and themselves being subjected to state-sanctioned electrocution in the streets.

After the four tables had disbanded and everyone settled in for a round of public comment, Police Chief Bill Scott claimed that “both sides” had presented convincing arguments. That was an inaccurate characterization at best. Taser proponents numbered in the low single digits and, at my table, no real support was offered at all. Despite their well-researched and articulated statements, anti-Taser attendees were provided only comment cards and hastily jotted, simplified notes taken by volunteer “facilitators” as assurance that the Commission would hear their voices. It seemed to many that the initial round of tabled group commentary was intended only to defuse the first wave of public anger.

The next round — public comments in a town hall-like format — did present the opportunity to address Chief Scott and Police Commissioners Sonia Melara and Bob Hirsch. Scott and Hirsch sat silently as around sixty people made passionate appeals to their senses of reason, fiscal responsibility, and basic humanity. But Commissioner Melara — attempting to maintain “order” — demanded that some of the more vocal attendees remain quiet and cede their two-minute turn at the microphone. When one passionate advocate invoked the over 1,000 Taser-involved deaths to date, Melara walked off the dais.

A uniformed police officer with a holstered pistol — one of twenty or so armed officers in the auditorium — stood next to each speaker, as if to suggest that there would be consequences for exceeding the allotted time. Another officer cut the mic after each commenter had spoken for two minutes. The atmosphere cultivated by such measures was not one of openness and acceptance. Calls for justice from across a whole spectrum, from tragic stories to well-reasoned pleas to full-throated anger, were on display. But despite the deluge of wholly convincing opposition, the night concluded with the distinct sense that these people’s clear rejection of Tasers might still go unheeded.

There has been evident throughout this process the clear intent to equip San Francisco officers with Tasers, public opinion be damned. Four stakeholder groups, made up of a combination of police command staff and civilians, were tasked with overseeing a total of 270 Department of Justice reforms to the SFPD. All groups had dozens of agenda items — with the exception of the Taser group, which was formed later than the others and would deal with only that single issue.

This special group was fronted by the conservative Commissioner Melara. Although the Department of Justice report only recommends that SFPD “consider” Tasers, many sources claim that Melara ran her stakeholder group with an ulterior motive — to put Tasers in the hands of San Francisco cops, no matter what. In the Taser group, Melara, according to sources, set the agenda, cut off dissension even from fellow commissioners, and ignored expert opinions. She is also responsible for the structure of the meeting that I attended — designed to divert dissent and provide minimal time to voice concerns.

This is not the full extent of questionable conduct on the part of the city. Earlier this year, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned an expensive “push poll” that relied on biased questions to give the illusion of public support. And an attempt by conservative supervisor Ahsha Safai to remove Petra DeJesus, an anti-Taser voice, from the Police Commission has lent further credence to the possibility that the Lee administration and the San Francisco Police Officers Association have already decided that Tasers will be a part of our futures as citizens of San Francisco.

The 1,005 documented fatalities involving Tasers include deaths by heart attack, ventricular fibrillation, and even electrical fires. Most studies claiming to verify the safety of the weapons were commissioned by Taser manufacturer Axon itself. And, in fact, Axon, formerly Taser International, was made aware by one of their own studies as far back as 2005 that even short single Taser discharges could lead to “cardiac capture,” where the electrical rhythms of the heart are violently disrupted, leading to ventricular fibrillation and rapid death.

The assumption that many make regarding Tasers is that a (purportedly) non-lethal weapon is preferable to discharging a handgun. What this view ignores is that it has been specifically determined that Tasers are not a substitute for guns in situations that would nominally warrant deadly force. This means that they can be deployed in much more common contexts where the officer is not in danger — such as when a person is undergoing a mental health crisis. Evidence shows that Tasers have been deployed on unarmed civilians, non-threatening individuals at traffic stops, and a six-year-old boy among many, many others.

Fully 25% of the people killed by Tasers were in the throes of a mental health crisis at the time. Of these, 9 out of 10 — fully 90% — were not armed with a weapon of any kind. This is a staggering statistic, and one that should give pause to anyone who considers Tasers to be a humane alternative to traditional weaponry. Perhaps most damning, however, is a 2009 study from UCSF, published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Cardiology, that indicates that fatal police shootings increase an astounding 600% in the first year after a department adopts Tasers. The death count then declines, but remains elevated at 40% higher than its original level.

This result may seem counterintuitive, but, when armed with Tasers, officers become more likely to discharge a Taser into an already-distressed victim instead of pursuing de-escalation tactics. The Los Angeles Police Department found that in 53% of LAPD Taser discharges the intended outcome (submission and arrest) was not met; rather, encounters were often escalated and became far more dangerous for both officer and subject. It’s at this point that guns are drawn and people end up dead. Rather than replacing firearms, Tasers catalyze violence.

We would be wise to keep the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in mind when we think about what kind of city we want to live in. In San Francisco, we are about to risk equipping a police force already prone to excessive violence with a means of dealing enormous damage to human beings, all with little chance of oversight or discipline. Rarely are officers held accountable for shooting deaths; it’s even more uncommon that an officer faces a disciplinary hearing for discharging a pair of fanged Taser barbs and 50,000 volts into someone’s neck. It’s instead seen as merciful act, sparing them from a hail of bullets.

Adding another weapon to officers’ arsenals, especially one with such a low bar for use, is not the way to deter violence. Electrocution is not an act of mercy. In 2007, the UN declared that Tasers constitute a form of torture. As evidenced by the passionate showing at last Tuesday’s meeting, San Francisco’s communities of color — who would be disproportionately impacted by these weapons — have made it abundantly clear that they agree. The Police Commission should listen to them and once again reject allowing police to carry Tasers in San Francisco.

Tyler Walicek is an independent journalist.