SF police chief, mayor differ over who sets rules for use of TASERs
Mayor Mark Farrell and Chief Bill Scott are at odds over a controversial ballot measure to arm San Francisco officers with TASERs
By Dominic Fracassa
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell and Police Chief Bill Scott are at odds over a controversial ballot measure to arm San Francisco officers with electronic stun guns, commonly known as Tasers.
On Thursday, Farrell issued a statement supporting the June ballot measure, characterizing the devices as a “less-lethal option” that corresponds with the San Francisco Police Department’s “most important priority” of “protecting the sanctity of life above all else.”
The mayor has long been a reliable ally of the powerful San Francisco Police Officers Association, the union that sponsored the ballot initiative.
His support for the measure comes a day after Scott sent a letter to the city’s Elections Department condemning the initiative as ill-conceived, because it would neuter the ability of the Police Commission — the SFPD’s policymaking body — to decide rules about the devices’ use.
The split represents a rare public break between the mayor and a department head on a critical policy issue that has inflamed long-simmering tensions between the Police Commission and the POA.
“One of the most salient impacts of the measure is, that if enacted, it can only be changed or rescinded by a majority of the voters of the City and County of San Francisco, or by an ordinance adopted by a four-fifths vote of the Board of Supervisors,” Scott wrote.
He added that the measure was “the antithesis of the spirit” of many of the 272 recommendations for reforming the SFPD issued by the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2016 following a string of deadly police shootings.
Scott supports providing uniformed SFPD officers with Tasers, and so does the Police Commission, which narrowly approved the use of the devices after a marathon and tempestuous meeting in November.
In a joint interview Thursday, Farrell and Scott sought to downplay the ramifications of their dueling positions, framing it as merely a minor difference of opinion on political procedure.
“At the end of the day, we’re in the same place and we want a safe city,” Scott said.
“On this issue, we may disagree on the method to get there, but we both agree on the underlying policy, which is the most important thing at the end of the day, without question,” Farrell said. “We always wanted it to happen through the (Police) Commission. And unfortunately, it’s taken much longer than anyone has wanted.”
Scott said his department was working closely with the commission to craft a stun-gun policy, and that he was optimistic it could approve the policy prior to the June election.
“I think it’ll happen before then, yes,” Scott said.
If approved by voters, the Safe Neighborhoods for All initiative would allow the SPFD to purchase stun guns for every officer. It also spells out the requirements for training and when to use the weapons. The measure mandates that the SFPD review every incident where a Taser is used and would require that officers carry portable defibrillators to resuscitate anyone who suffers a heart attack after being stunned.
The prospect of arming officers with stun guns has long generated backlash from opponents, who say the weapons are dangerous, unreliable and ultimately unlikely to cut down on police shootings.
On Thursday, John Crew, a retired attorney and police practices specialist with the American Civil Liberties Union, said it was “unbelievably irresponsible” for Farrell to back the ballot measure.
“His statement suggests he does not know what the ballot measure actually says and calls for. It’s not just about whether SFPD should have Tasers. It’s about who should be able to regulate them and under what standards,” Crew said.
“The Police Commission has had plenty of time to set policy and they failed to do so, so now it’s going straight to the voters,” said Nathan Ballard, a former spokesman for the POA and an adviser to Farrell.
In his statement, Farrell plainly accused the Police Commission of dragging its feet on getting a Taser policy implemented.
“We have yet to see sufficient progress in the efforts to create a policy that will provide our officers with this less-lethal option,” he wrote. He said he would support the ballot measure “until such time as the Police Commission adopts a ... policy that works for our officers and community.”
Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran wrote a post on the union’s website blasting Scott’s position and calling Farrell “a reasonable voice in the room.”
The POA has repeatedly complained about policy decisions handed down by the civilian Police Commission, which the union has accused of being overly politicized. Halloran, without naming specific commissioners, accused some of being “obstructionists” on the Taser issue, preferring instead to “play politics than to do their job and keep officers and the public safe.”
“Unfortunately, the chief allowed himself to be played like a cheap fiddle by some on the Police Commission who have their own agenda,” Halloran wrote. Scott, he added, “should get rid of whoever is advising him — otherwise, he is going to drive an irreparable wedge between himself and the (police union) membership.”
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