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Thursday, March 04, 2010

San Francisco Police Commission warned on Taser risks

March 4, 2010
Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle

Researchers and experts warned the San Francisco Police Commission on Wednesday about the lethal risk of Tasers and urged the panel either to strongly limit or reject their use in dealing with unruly suspects.

The seven-member panel, which had already heard a number of experts speak in favor of Tasers as a way to reduce deaths and injuries, was expected to vote late Wednesday on whether to draw up a policy for their use by the San Francisco Police Department.

But Zian Tseng, a UCSF researcher, cited a sixfold increase in deaths in custody during the first year of their use in 50 Taser-fielding agencies surveyed in California. He could not say if Tasers had a role in any of those deaths. Tseng also noted that officer-involved shootings went up as well, but those shootings and in-custody deaths dropped back to previous levels following the first year of Taser use.

"There is a risk, but there's a smart way of using the Tasers," he said. He cautioned that officers should not fire at the chest or multiple times and that they need to keep heart defibrillators at hand to revive suspects. Dr. Byron Lee, a UCSF cardiology professor, warned against "usage creep" by officers, who are more inclined to use a Taser as they see how easily the device stops suspects. "That's where the risk happens, where you don't realize these are potentially lethal and they are used in a haphazard manner."

Most cities use Tasers

San Francisco is one of only a few major cities in the United States whose officers are not equipped with the weapons, which incapacitate suspects by stunning them with an electrical charge.

The seven-member commission, made up of four mayoral appointments and three members appointed by the Board of Supervisors, was considering Chief George Gascón's request to equip officers with Tasers. On Feb. 17, the panel decided unanimously to delay a decision so it could study Taser research after voting 4-3 against moving forward immediately.

After becoming chief in July, Gascón commissioned a study of officer-involved shootings in San Francisco over five years that found that as many as one-third could have been avoided had police been able to use Tasers.

Critics, however, cite studies that indicate a possible connection between the stun guns and the risk of sudden heart attack in people hit with them. They note that manufacturer Taser International warned police last year not to fire the devices at suspects' chests, after one of the company's scientific advisers concluded that at least one fatal heart attack in an otherwise healthy person had been caused by the device.

John Burton, a lawyer who won a $5 million judgment against Taser International in the case of a man who died after being Tased by a police officer in Salinas, urged the commissions to reject Tasers as "very dangerous" and largely untested and unregulated.

"Departments are relying on training and representations of the manufacturer, which has a built-in conflict of interest," he said, adding that Taser had "covered up a real health risk."

Burton said the company has known since 2005 that the devices could stop the hearts of animals and, later, humans, but failed to warn officers until late last year about not firing at the chest and against multiple uses.

"This is a company that simply refuses to sell its product with advice about how it could be used most safely" he said, adding that the "hidden dangers" outweigh the utility of the device.

ACLU weighs in

Kelli Evans, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, urged the panel to reject the proposal as ill conceived and premature. "The first step is to back up," Evans said. "You've got the cart before the horse."

She said the department should first reach out to community groups, particularly mental health experts, before the matter goes to the commission.

"What needs to happen is a community dialogue - does this really make sense in San Francisco right now?" she said, suggesting that the community distrusts the police and the department's use-of-force tracking.

Evans said Memphis has developed an alternative to using Tasers, creating a mental health response team rather than use the device on mentally ill suspects. She said that if the city does deploy Tasers, it is "important not to do it carte blanche."

But 38-year SFPD veteran Vince Repetto, who joined a contingent of officers waiting to speak in favor of Tasers, said before the meeting that the Taser proposal is literally "a life-or-death decision."

"It's not if, but when, a Taser is used to stop a knife-wielding suspect and a life is saved," he said. "Then you will see the results of your decision. Let us hope that same suspect is not shot dead because an officer lacked a valuable option to deadly force."

Roughly 400 people in the United States have died since 2001 after being hit with stun guns, but Taser and its proponents, including Gascón, say most had existing heart conditions or had been using drugs.

An important vote

It appeared the Police Commission's decision could hang on the vote of commissioner Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor who was among the majority voting against immediately drawing up a policy Feb. 17. He said then that he supported a delay so fellow commissioners could ponder the issue.

Hammer signaled before the meeting Wednesday that he supported giving Tasers to officers, but only if rules are put in place restricting their use to extreme circumstances.

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