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Sunday, January 30, 2011

San Francisco police seeking to revisit Taser debate

January 30, 2011
TERRY COLLINS, Associated Press
San Francisco Chronicle

In the wake of at least three recent officer-related shootings — including the video-recorded wounding of a knife-wielding man in a wheelchair — the San Francisco Police Department is reviving efforts to equip officers with less-lethal electric stun guns.

It comes nearly a year after the Police Commission narrowly rejected the department's proposal to even explore using the devices commonly known as Tasers, citing safety and liability concerns.

Interim Chief Jeff Godown and a team of experts will try again in February to persuade the seven-member commission to grant permission to the department to study bringing in Tasers possibly by early next year.

"I hope we give a stellar presentation to the commission, allow the public to have comment and allow us to go out and do research," Godown said last week.

Use-of-force experts say that a solid case made by the department could win over a commission with several new members citing Tasers as an alternative to deadly force. Critics acknowledge that Tasers are less lethal than guns but say they still pose a health risk, including death.

Amnesty International estimates that about 400 people have died from being shocked with a stun gun. Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International Inc., said those numbers are misleading. He said medical examiners have said Tasers contributed to fewer than 50 of those deaths.

More than 12,000 law enforcement agencies across the country use Tasers, Tuttle said.

Critics may also cite recent legal rulings involving the use of Tasers.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December that police must have reasonable grounds for using stun guns. The San Francisco-based court said a Southern California officer used excessive force in firing a stun gun to subdue an unarmed motorist for not wearing a seat belt during a 2005 traffic stop.

Nearly every major city police department in the U.S. uses stun guns. San Francisco is among a handful of cities, including Detroit and Memphis, that do not.

San Francisco's Taser initiative was rekindled earlier this month by then-police chief George Gascon after two officer-involved shootings within a week involving men with knives.

He said officers were justified in shooting a man in a wheelchair who had been slashing car tires with a knife before he stabbed an officer Jan 4. He suffered nonfatal wounds when police shot him.

Gascon, who is now San Francisco's district attorney, said that shooting — which was caught on cell phone video, aired on the Internet and made national headlines — could have had a different outcome if officers were equipped with Tasers.

"A Taser more than likely would have ended this scenario probably at the earlier stages, but we don't have them," Gascon said.

On Dec. 29, officers fatally shot a man who was carrying a knife when they responded to an alleged stabbing of a teenage girl at the man's residence. The man was later described as having a history of mental illness.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies Tasers, believes that San Francisco police, if the Taser initiative is approved, should create a very detailed policy, training and oversight.

"It's an educational process and San Francisco has a long history of citizen involvement with police affairs," Harris said. "These things are not toys."

Kelli Evans, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, who testified last year against Gascon's Taser proposal, said: "Tasers only make sense in a narrow category of high-risk incidents in police departments with stringent training, adequate safeguards, strong accountability systems and a high degree of transparency. San Francisco isn't there yet."

She also wants police to resume officer training for dealing with mentally ill suspects. Police say their training program, suspended last summer, is being revamped.

In seeking permission to use Tasers, Gascon cited a recent study of officer-involved shootings in San Francisco over five years, which indicated that up to one-third of all incidents could have been avoided if Tasers were used.

"I underestimated the political environment that I was operating under," Gascon recently told reporters about the commission rejecting his request last year.

Police Commission President Thomas Mazzucco, who said he is undecided after voting for Tasers last year, said there are compelling arguments on both sides.

"Everybody needs to take a deep breath and see what works for the citizens and the officers," Mazzucco said.

Gary Delagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said officers strongly support the use of stun guns as another useful tool.

"They've been long overdue. We thought we had them last year, but the some members of the commission were able to knock it down," Delagnes said. "We hope to prevail this time around."

Steve Ijames, a retired police officer from Missouri and expert in non-lethal tactics, believes Tasers are more effective than bean bag shots or pepper spray, especially among suspects who are highly tolerant to pain.

Ijames, who has trained law enforcement officers in more than 35 countries, also recommends police departments use Tasers with tiny video cameras attached to grip of the gun for more accountability.

The camera is activated as soon as the officer takes the Taser out of the holster and turns off the safety.

"It just shuts people's mouths about what actually happened," Ijames said. "It removes all doubt."

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