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San Francisco PD gets green light to study TASERs

Had the San Francisco Police Commission voted 'no' it would have all but killed any future action on the matter

In midnight proceedings, the San Francisco Police Commission voted overwhelmingly (the tally was six in favor, one opposed) last night to allow the Police Department to begin to look into the addition of TASERs to the duty belts of its law enforcers. As of December 31, 2010, TASER International had sold more than a half million TASER devices to more than 16,000 police and military agencies worldwide — nearly 7,000 of those agencies deploy TASERs to every single one of their patrol officers. At least until now, SFPD was decidedly not one of those agencies (interestingly, the San Francisco Sherriff’s Department — which patrols the halls and meeting rooms where the Police Commission conducts its business — has had TASERs since 2002). But last night, after what has been characterized as “a lively, six-hour debate,” the Commission did the right thing, and green-lit the PD to conduct studies into how it would deploy these invaluable devices.

As has been previously reported in this space, this has been a long time in coming. Almost exactly a year ago, the Police Commission voted down — by a narrow 4-3 margin — a nearly identical proposal by then-Police Chief George Gascón to study the use of TASERs.

More than a year ago, SFPD released a comprehensive report — available for download on the SFPD website — on Officer-Involved Shootings in that city over the past five years. The clearest conclusion among all the data presented in that report was the need for SFPD cops to have TASERs. When I spoke last summer with then-Assistant Chief Morris Tabak — who had been tasked to conduct the study — Tabak explained, “That wasn’t the purpose of it — that’s just what jumped off the page — was the need for us to look at TASER, or a TASER-like weapon.”

Autumn 2010 came and went, and although it looked at times like the Commission would take up the matter for consideration, nothing substantive happened. Then, last month, San Francisco cops were forced to shot a knife-wielding, wheelchair-bound man who had stabbed and injured an officer in the upper left shoulder (you can see the video that went viral on the Internet immediately to the left of this paragraph). 

At that time, then-Chief Gascón all but demanded that Commissioners take up the issue for another vote. Gascón reportedly said that having TASERs “most likely would have ended this scenario” and he was right. It looked for a brief minute that on the tidal wave of public interest in that story, a Commission vote was imminent. No dice.

But this is San Francisco, and strange things happen here almost every single day. One of those things was the surprise sprung one Saturday afternoon when outgoing Mayor Gavin Newsom — who is now the Lieutenant Governor of California — tapped Chief Gascón to be San Francisco District Attorney. Upon Gascón’s departure to the DA’s office, interim Police Chief Jeff Godown took over the Department. With Newsom now in Sacramento, interim Mayor Ed Lee took over at Civic Center Plaza. Add to all those changes the fact that this is not the same Police Commission — there are three entirely new faces on the panel — and the question on whether the Commission would even put the matter on last night’s meeting agenda really became a coin toss.

I had coffee late last week with one of my friends in the Department who is dialed in on this stuff, and neither of us could say with confidence the vote would even take place, let alone what the outcome might be. So last night’s action is welcome news to say the very least.

Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. The PD merely has the green light to “study” the feasibility of adding TASERs to its lineup of less lethal options. Questions about funding such an effort, most notably, have thus far been unanswered — and in most cases, unasked! — but this vote could have gone very badly for the good guys. Had the vote been “no” it would have all but killed any future action on the matter.

Make no mistake, the PD is far from done in this fight, but the fact that the Commission has finally voted in favor of allowing the concept of giving this invaluable tool to my local cops is a breath of fresh air. It remains to be seen whether interim Chief Godown will remain chief, whether interim Mayor Lee will remain mayor, or the Commission will ultimately approve any future measure subsequently submitted by the PD seeking authorization to use the devices. Nonetheless, there is real cause today for celebration.

In an excellent column posted to PoliceOne back in September 2009, Capt. Greg Meyer (ret.) correctly stated, “There are 18,000 police agencies in the United States, which means that there are 18,000 policies on nonlethal weapons out there. As law enforcement evolves as a profession, the policies and training are getting better, but it’s not as quick and easy a process as flipping on a light switch.”

Ain’t that the truth!

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