SFPD Chief Greg Suhr wants to equip his department with 100 or so electric stun guns as part of a new pilot program that would specifically train officers to handle mentally ill people. Although similar efforts by Suhr's predecessors have be zapped by critics, Suhr said this week that it was his "moral obligation" to bring up the debate again after an officer fatally shot a man who stabbed his coworker at a chocolate factory earlier this year.
Yesterday at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee, Suhr became the third police chief in a row to have his request shot down by city administrators. Progressive supe and runner-up 2011 mayoral candidate John Avalos called the effort to arm officers with stun guns a "backwards" move for the city. "We haven’t done the work on developing the crisis response that we can do in the department,” Avalos said before working in a cliff reference because those are hot right now: "I worry that we are moving toward a lethal cliff that we don't need to reach at this point."
District 5 interim Supe Christina Olague also weighed in, although she'll be out of the whole City Hall mess in less than a month: "We should be creating a culture of crisis intervention. Not creating a culture of using a weapon, which is a Taser.” To which we agree, the police department should definitely send their officers to a crisis intervention training program. Like Krav Maga, maybe.
Civil rights groups like the ACLU of Northern California and the Coalition on Homelessness, however, see Suhr's proposal as one step towards turning the SFPD into an army of Taser-equipped blue stormtroopers. For their part, they'd rather see a "cultural shift" on the force, away from one where an officer feels it is OK to use a weapon.
As one attorney argued on behalf of the ACLU, the stun guns are often viewed as harmless but can in fact, ""cause excruciating pain and pose the risk of serious injury or death." Jennifer Friedenbach, head of the Coalition on Homelessness, was not so restrained and lashed out at Suhr's idea: “San Francisco doesn't want Tasers and San Francisco doesn’t need Tasers. Instead of prioritizing the trainings and the culture shift that’s necessary to save lives of our most vulnerable populations, Chief Suhr is instead promoting a new shiny lethal weapon.”
On the other hand, Mikail Ali, the department's head of crisis intervention training told the room of supervisors and ACLU members: "Words do not always work. Our officers need to be equipped with the necessary tools.” Ali also pointed to the officer-involved shooting incident at the TCHO chocolate factory back in July, claiming "that person would be alive today and back on the road to recovery" if that officer had been equipped with a stun gun.
Anyhow, the issue isn't dead yet — just temporarily immobilized until Chief Suhr can hold a series of community meetings about the stun guns next month. The Board may revisit the issue early next year.