Tasers vs. talk

Pub date March 1, 2011
WriterRebecca Bowe


At a Feb. 23 Police Commission hearing, San Francisco interim Police Chief Jeff Godown told the civilian oversight board he wanted to investigate Tasers as a less-lethal weapon for San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officers. Speaking to a room crammed full of community advocates who had turned out to rail against the idea, Godown seemed to try to preemptively address a concern that opponents were sure to raise during public comment.

“This is not about mental illness,” the chief said. Along with police commissioners who favored the Taser proposal, Godown drove that point home several more times throughout the evening, stressing that Tasers were not being sought as a law enforcement tool for dealing with violent, mentally ill individuals. Nevertheless, he said situations could potentially arise in which the stun guns would be used against the mentally ill, if officers were authorized to carry the devices.

At the end of a marathon meeting, SFPD won approval to spend 90 days investigating Tasers and other less-lethal weapons as possible additions to the police arsenal, which now includes pepper spray and batons as well as firearms. Advocates raised concerns ranging from misuse of the devices to accidental deaths caused by Tasers to documented overuse of the weapons in communities of color. The SFPD, meanwhile, emphasized that it saw Tasers as a way to improve officer safety while limiting the use of lethal force.



Throughout the discussion, concern about the use of Tasers as a tool against the mentally ill persisted despite the chief’s assurances. “Like it or not, these issues are intertwined,” said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Police Practices Director Allen Hopper. He referenced comments made by former Police Chief George Gascón, who now serves as district attorney.

On Jan. 4, SFPD officers fired twice at Randal Dunklin, a wheelchair-bound, mentally ill man who was brandishing a knife outside the city’s Department of Public Health building. Dunklin allegedly stabbed an officer and suffered a nonfatal gunshot wound to the groin after he had tossed the knife. In press comments delivered in the aftermath, Gascón said the situation illustrated why the SFPD ought to carry Tasers.

“Not only was that not an appropriate circumstance for the use of a Taser, there were so many things wrong with the way police handled that situation,” Hopper said, referencing a YouTube video of the shooting that served to highlight key differences between the official police account and the events caught on tape.

Dunklin was the third person in recent months to be shot in an altercation with officers. Vinh Bui, who was 46, was fatally shot in Visitacion Valley in late December 2010. Michael Lee, who was 43, was fatally shot in a residential hotel in the Tenderloin a few months earlier. Both had a history of mental illness.

Police Commissioner Angela Chan told the Guardian that in light of these tragedies, she became concerned that the first commission meeting of the year initially featured a discussion about Tasers.

“I thought, this does not make any sense,” Chan said, because commissioners hadn’t yet looked at creating a specialized police unit for dealing with psychiatric crisis calls, a move she’d urged the department to consider. The commission schedule was rearranged to reflect her concern, and Chan rushed to book experts for a detailed presentation about crisis intervention training (CIT). In a unanimous vote at the Feb. 9 meeting, the police commission approved implementation of CIT.

The specialized policing technique is patterned after the so-called Memphis model, which originated in Tennessee in 1988 in the wake of a public outcry that arose when white officers gunned down an African American man with a history of mental illness.

Memphis model policing emphasizes de-escalation, which is quite different from the everyday command-and-control method cops are trained to use against suspects. Under this model, officers are taught to consider things such as the tone of voice they are using to communicate with the mentally ill person, the distance they are standing from them, and how the individual might respond to their behavior. Whenever it’s safe to do so, officers are encouraged to allow the mentally ill person the time they need to calm down.

Samara Marion, an attorney and policy analyst with the Office of Citizen Complaints, traveled to Memphis to witness CIT officers on duty. “I was absolutely impressed,” Marion said. “It is community policing at its best.”

CIT has been credited with a dramatic reduction in officer-involved shootings against the mentally ill in Memphis. Randolph Dupont, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Memphis-based School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy, told the Guardian that studies had shown mentally ill people who dealt with CIT officers were more likely to be in treatment three months later than those arrested by non-CIT officers. “Mental health is a community issue,” he said. “You don’t want it to be a police issue to resolve.”

In San Francisco, the program envisions training about 20 percent of the police force to create an elite unit of CIT officers, selecting those who are more experienced and have better track records in dealing with the public. Once in place, 911 dispatchers would alert CIT when SFPD receives calls involving psychiatric crises. On arriving to the scene, a CIT officer would be responsible for taking charge of the situation and directing other officers.

This is the second time an attempt was made to move forward with crisis intervention in San Francisco. In 2001, the department implemented generalized crisis training to all officers instead of intensive training for a specialized unit. However, that low-level effort was canceled last year due to budget cuts.

While CIT won resounding support from the community, the Feb. 23 discussion about Tasers drew tremendous opposition, with around 50 advocates speaking out against the plan. Hopper’s criticism, echoed by several mental-health providers, was that SFPD’s campaign for Tasers sent a mixed message and threatened to overshadow the CIT effort by seeking a quick fix based on a tool instead of a tactic. And rather than moving toward the goal of de-escalation set by CIT, Hopper said, the use of Tasers could exacerbate a situation instead, making it more dangerous for everyone involved.

“The Police Department — we think to its credit — has recognized that [addressing] mental health issues is a departmental priority,” Hopper said. “We think it’s putting the cart before the horse to give police Tasers before they put that plan into effect.”

A mental-health advocate who said she is “living the Kafkaesque world of a family dealing with mental illness” urged the commission to hold off on talking about Tasers until after CIT had been implemented, saying the two were closely connected.

“If you vote to purchase Tasers, you’re undercutting the message that they need to learn de-escalation,” another mental-health advocate noted.

Yet Marion said she thought adequate time was being allotted to study less-lethal weapons, and did not think this would undercut the CIT effort. “As long as the department continues to be motivated and engaged, I don’t see it being a problem,” she said.

Chan told the Guardian that the day after the Feb. 23 commission hearing, Godown phoned her to say he remained committed to CIT. Although she voted to allow police to move forward with investigating Tasers, Chan said her final support would depend on the success of CIT.

“If CIT is not doing well … I am going to be strongly opposed to any adoption of any pilot program,” Chan said. “I do prioritize one above the other.”



A Taser is an electroshock weapon that can administer 50,000 volts through two small probes, disrupting the central nervous system and bringing on neuromuscular incapacitation.

While Taser proponent Chuck Wexler, a researcher who spoke at the hearing, emphasized that Tasers “are for saving lives,” studies have shown that the risk of death or serious injury increases under certain circumstances. Someone who is Tasered while fleeing police can suffer serious injuries if they can’t break their fall. There are dangerous implications for people whose heart rate is accelerated due to cocaine or methamphetamine, and as the Memphis Police Department learned many years ago, Tasers don’t mix with flammable substances, like an alcohol-based pepper spray that has since been discontinued.

“Lots of times it’s not about the product itself, it’s about … risk factors,” said Maj. Sam Cochran, who worked with Dupont in Memphis to create CIT. “Under some circumstances, things can happen very fast.”

Safety concerns are heightened when it comes to the mentally ill. It’s common for people experiencing psychiatric episodes to behave violently, speak incoherently, and ignore commands, creating the kind of scenario where law enforcement would likely opt to deploy a Taser. According to an extensive research inquiry on Tasers published by the Braidwood Commission on Conducted Energy Weapon Use, Tasers can be especially dangerous when used against people who are delirious.

“First responders should be aware of the medical risks associated with physically restraining a delirious subject or deploying a conducted energy weapon against them,” according to Dr. Shaohua Lu, who is quoted in the study. “They likely have profound exhaustion and electrolyte changes before delirium kicks in. At that stage, any additional insult (e.g., struggling or fighting) can lead to the body just giving out, resulting in cardiac arrest and death.”

Since 2004, when the city of San Jose first equipped officers with Tasers, seven people have died following police Taser deployments. At least one was mentally ill.

MaryKate Connor, a mental-health provider who founded the now-defunct Caduceus Outreach Services, told the Guardian she didn’t think the police officers could separate the issues of less-lethal weapons and tactics for handling the mentally ill. “The promise of the CIT program, whether the police want to acknowledge it or not, is that this is a huge cultural shift,” she said. “It’s not about finding a new weapon. It’s about finding a less lethal way to respond, period.”

Joyce Hicks, director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, sounded a similar note during the hearing. “No weapon can substitute for sound tactics,” Hicks said.