Taser Discussion Dominates Unveiling of Proposed New SFPD Force Policy - NBC Bay Area
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Taser Discussion Dominates Unveiling of Proposed New SFPD Force Policy

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A crowd at Wednesday's San Francisco Police Commission meeting was not receptive to the idea of Tasers being added to the San Francisco Police Department. But San Francisco police believe this use of force could save lives. Pete Suratos reports. (Published Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016)

    San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr presented a new use of force policy to the city's Police Commission Wednesday evening in response to the fatal shooting of Mario Woods last year.

    But one long-controversial item generated most of the discussion: Tasers.

    The comprehensive policy called for a commitment to the "sanctity and preservation of all human life, human rights and human dignity." It outlined policy and procedures for using pepper spray and batons and prohibited chokeholds.

    But it also introduced electronic control devices, commonly known as Tasers, as a viable option for San Francisco officers. Suhr and prior police chiefs have long sought to equip officers with Tasers but the proposal has created fierce backlash from civil rights groups who have argued they are too dangerous, particularly for people with heart problems, and will do nothing to curb police use of deadly force.

    Use of Tasers was brought up almost immediately after Woods' death on Dec. 2. Suhr, Mayor Ed Lee and the city's Police Officer Association have all suggested that Woods -- who was shot and killed by five police officers while holding a knife in the city's Bayview District -- would still be alive today if those officers were equipped with Tasers.

    "It seems like a backdoor way of getting Tasers," police Commissioner Petra DeJesus said of including it in the revised use of force policy.

    DeJesus said she has attended several meetings discussing possible changes to the use of force policy and has heard from community members there that they don't support officers getting Tasers.

    "Who's asking for Tasers?" she said. "It comes down to the department and the mayor."

    The commission heard over an hour of public comment overwhelmingly in opposition to Tasers, calling for Suhr's resignation and expressing fear and outrage at the scandal-plagued department.

    "It's unfathomable to think that adding another weapon to a Police Department that's out of control is going to solve our problems," one speaker, Nancy Kato, said.

    One commissioner suggested the issue was too much of a lightning rod and should be discussed separately from the rest of the use of force policy.

    "This is such a big and controversial issue it's going to overwhelm our other discussion," Commissioner Victor Hwang said. "We're already rolling out body cameras and we should let them get used to body cameras and acclimate to them before adding something new to their toolbelt."

    Suhr's Taser policy is more narrow than other departments that already use them. Most officers would not have them, only specially trained officers, and using them would require a special callout. Suhr said he thinks they would be an invaluable tool in buying officers time before deadly force had to be used.

    Other use of force policies laid out this evening also go beyond those at other departments. The policy expressly forbids both the use of chokeholds and cartoid restraints -- a similar hold to a chokehold that compresses arteries on either side of the neck and not the windpipe. San Jose police reiterated a policy that allows carotid restraints just this week.

    Suhr said the policy would also prohibit officers from firing on a suspect in a vehicle unless the suspect posed a threat other than with the vehicle itself, a policy he said was already in place in New York but is uncommon in Bay Area departments.

    But Tasers dominated the discussion throughout the evening, to the dismay of the commission.

    "The lack of Tasers is not what killed Mario Woods," Berkeley Copwatch activist Andrea Pritchett said. "A lack of regard for black life is what killed that man."

    The audience at the meeting cheered as she addressed Suhr directly, saying if he is seeking Tasers for the department, "You have absolutely no idea what real community safety is about."

    The policy will be reviewed by a working group and then sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for further study before two planned public hearings. The commission hopes to vote on a final version of the new policy in April, Commission President Suzy Loftus said.

    Most of the commissioners agreed they wanted to leave the use of Tasers in the policy for the time being to get feedback on it. They all agreed there were positive things in the policy, and will be able to vote on it item by item when the time comes.

    "This is fundamentally about re-engineering use of force and I think it's a shame that we're only talking about electronic control devices," Loftus said.

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