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Calif. study on officer-involved shootings underscores need for cops to have TASERs

The San Francisco Police Department looked at 15 OIS incidents in the past five years — PoliceOne takes a close look at the results

Earlier this year, the San Francisco Police Department released a comprehensive report — available for download on the SFPD website — on Officer-Involved Shootings in that city over the past five years. The report is filled with all manner of charts and graphs and observations and recommendations — most notable were the factors of mental health and toxicology of the subjects who were either injured or killed, as well as the near proximity of the subjects to the officers involved. From these three factors, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the 2,300+ sworn officers of SFPD should have TASERs on their duty belts.

One of the first things Chief George Gascoń did as incoming Chief of Police in August 2009 was to put on the radars of the local politicians and the Police Commission his desire to put TASERs (or some other ECD) into the hands of his officers. He also ordered Assistant Chief Morris Tabak — who at the time was Deputy Chief — to conduct this study.

During an exclusive interview with PoliceOne, Tabak explained, “The results of this study — although 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, as an option.”

San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon (at podium) asked Assistant Chief Morris Tabak — who at the time was Deputy Chief — to conduct a study on Officer-Involved Shootings in that city over the past five years. (AP Photo)
San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon (at podium) asked Assistant Chief Morris Tabak — who at the time was Deputy Chief — to conduct a study on Officer-Involved Shootings in that city over the past five years. (AP Photo)

Tabak said further that the report — which will be discussed in detail during a session at the upcoming IACP Conference in October — underscores the extent to which toxicology and mental health issues play into these dynamic incidents that ultimately result in officer involved shootings. It highlights the need for training in crisis intervention — dealing with difficult individuals who have mental health issues or are high on drugs. The other thing that stood out for Tabak and his team — the list of experts and contributors to the report reads like a who’s who in San Francisco law enforcement — was what he called “the distance factor.”

“Although you read and hear anecdotally that most incidences occur in very close proximity,” stated Tabak, “we found that 14 of the 15 incidents we looked at occurred 15 feet or less, which really speaks to the need for less lethal options. Quite frankly, that’s become quite an issue in San Francisco, since we don’t have a TASER or TASER-like weapon. All we have is the impact weapon — the bean bag — which cannot be deployed at 15 feet or less, so it really kind of leaves us with no other option other than firearms. We’re going to revisit that issue, probably mid-summer.”

Tabak is referring to the fact that in late March, the San Francisco Police Commission voted down — by narrow 4-3 margin — a proposal by police Chief Gascoń to explore the use of TASERs by the department. Most observers in San Francisco believe that the issue will be brought again before the Commission before too long.

By the Numbers, by the Bay
During the timeline for this study (January 1, 2005 to August 27, 2009), SFPD investigated 24 OIS incidents, five of which involved outside law enforcement agencies. “Since these involved non-SFPD members,” stated the report, “these five shootings were eliminated from our study because they involved a different process and they provided no data regarding the hiring, training, supervision, or policies of the San Francisco Police Department.”

Another four shootings involved subjects “who were either not injured, or who sustained injuries prior to, or during the shooting event, however the injuries could not be attributed to police gun fire. These cases were originally investigated as officer-involved shootings out of an abundance of caution, however due to the indeterminate cause of the injuries involved they did not fit the criteria of this study.”

So, we’ve got 15 cases in a five-year period “in which San Francisco police officers discharged a firearm in the performance of their duties that resulted in an injury to, or the death of a person.” Let’s go a little deeper into the numbers. First, it’s helpful to understand a little more about San Francisco itself. With a population of more than 808,000, San Francisco is the fourth most populous city in California and the 12th most populous city in the United States. The City’s 47 square miles are bordered on three sides by water, with a population density 17,323 per square mile.

As stated above, SFPD has more than 2,300 cops (2,334 sworn personnel as of January 5, 2010 to be exact). For the period of this study, there were more than six million documented Call-for-Service contacts between SFPD cops and members of the public. With just 15 contacts resulting in an officer-involved shooting, that calculates out to only one in 408,000 documented contacts resulting the use of deadly force. That’s an incredibly small number for such a major metropolitan area.

Unhappy Customers, Chemical Impairment, and SBC
Suffice it to say, all of the individuals involved in the 15 OISs studied were a self-selecting group of unhappy customers — displeased with their last interaction with police officers. All 15 subjects had prior arrest records, for an average of 12 misdemeanor and 15 felony arrests each. Slightly less than an half of subjects were on felony probation at the time of the OIS. Five of the 15 subjects were eligible to be tried, convicted, and imprisoned (for a minimum term of 25 years upon conviction of a third qualifying felony) under California’s “three strikes” law.

Among the 15 OIS cases studied, 14 were subjected to toxicology testing. Those toxicology reports showed positive toxicology findings in nearly three quarters of the subjects — ten individuals tested positive, only four were negative. Of the ten with positive toxicology reports, the drugs found were alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, cannabis, and opiates.

Finally, five incidents studied had a strong indication of mental health issues being a contributing factor. In four cases, there were indications suggesting possible “suicide by cop,” and in each of these incidents the outcome was fatal.

“The purpose of this study was to analyze the circumstances that led to these shooting incidents, to explain the process by which these cases are investigated, and to make recommendations for procedures and policy changes based upon the findings,” Tabak said. “This report really underscored to us really how deliberate and judicious we were in using deadly force, especially given the fact that we had no other less lethal options.”

Chief Gascoń, Assistant Chief Tabak, and others in SFPD will, in coming weeks and months, again try to convince the local police commission that the department be given the ability to add ECDs as an option in department’s arsenal. When you really look at the main points contained within the 180+ pages of this five-year study — particularly the issues of mental health, toxicology, and proximity of subjects to the officers involved — there is no doubt that adding TASERs to officer's duty belts would decrease the already low number of officer-involved injuries and fatalities in San Francisco.

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