The problem with Tasers

Pub date January 27, 2010

The BART police officer who pulled a weapon and killed Oscar Grant on Jan. 2, 2009 claims he didn’t intend to use lethal force. Lawyers for Johannes Mehserle say their client meant to pull a Taser gun to subdue Grant and grabbed his service pistol by mistake.

That, of course, is a debatable proposition, and a jury in Mehserle’s homicide case will have to sort it out. But it shows the danger of a new San Francisco Police Department report suggesting that Tasers might have saved the lives of some of the eight people shot and killed by San Francisco cops between 2005 and 2009.

The report, written by Assistant Chief Morris Tabak, focuses on 15 incidents in which local officers shot at suspects. Seven of those shootings led to nonfatal injuries, but eight ended with the suspect dead. Some of the shootings were, at best, dubious. In 2005, for example, two officers shot and killed a mentally disturbed man, Asa Sullivan, who was unarmed and hiding in an attic (see “Why is Asa Sullivan dead?” 6/21/06). If the police had a viable less-lethal alternative, the report states, the outcome might have been different. The death of Idriss Stelley at the hands of the SFPD isn’t mentioned in the report, since that happened in 2001,. But Stelley was also mentally ill, and some critics say he should never have been shot .

It’s no secret that Chief George Gascón supports arming the police with Tasers, which use high-voltage electrical current to disrupt a person’s nervous system and render him or her temporarily unable to move. Tasers aren’t exactly nonlethal; by some accounts, 250 people have been killed by Taser shots. They can be particularly hazardous to people with heart conditions.

And they also can be badly abused by police officers who see them as a tool to subdue unruly suspects who otherwise would not be subject to the use of lethal force. Nobody argues, for example, that Oscar Grant (who was lying on the ground, unarmed) was enough of a threat that the use of lethal force was an appropriate police response. The BART officers on the scene, however, apparently thought that using a Taser was fine.

If that’s how the SFPD is going to see the use of Tasers, then the city’s better off without them.

We agree: if the officers who shot Asa Sullivan had used a Taser instead, the young man might still be alive today. (Assuming he wasn’t one of those whose medical condition would render a Taser attack fatal). And it’s always better to subdue a suspect without the use of lethal force. And Tabak is right — if the local cops had (and used) an alternative to their firearms in some of the fatal shootings, live might have been saved.

And if that’s how Tasers are used — and that’s the only way they’re used — there’s a case for adding them to the city’s arsenal.

But when the Police Commission reviews the Tabak report and discusses a policy change that could allow the SFPD to carry Tasers, it should start and end with one rule: a Taser should be treated like any lethal weapon, and used only when deadly force would be authorized.

The danger of less-lethal weapons is not just the fact that they can be fatal to some people, or that they can be mistaken for a firearm. If the cops think they can use the devices any time they want a shortcut to other forms of physical restraint, then Tasers become a liability that can lead to tragic consequences.