EDITORIAL: Not so shockingly, Taser debate is back
A Taser is a good idea because it is an option between a police baton and a firearm
By C.W. Nevius
The San Francisco Chronicle
Everybody has an opinion about Tasers. And when the Police Commission once again opens discussion on Wednesday night, we're probably going to hear plenty of them — loudly.
Angela Chan is new to the commission, but she's already tired of the rhetoric.
"This heated, yes-no debate where you have people yelling, 'I want Tasers,' and someone else is yelling, 'I don't want Tasers,' is not helpful," she said. "I'm hoping we can have a more thoughtful, substantive discussion."
Good luck. Things always seem to start out in a reasonable tone and then go off the rails.
So before the smoke and confusion fill the room, let's stick with the central premise: A Taser is a good idea because it is an option between a police baton and a firearm. That's an idea that makes perfect sense.
Even most of the critics agree with that. But they tend to bring in other considerations.
"Maybe Tasers are the answer; maybe they are not," said Commissioner Petra DeJesus, who voted against them a year ago. "But is this the time for them?"
DeJesus worries about the cost to a city in a budget crisis. Chan has concerns about effectiveness. And at least one other member of the commission wanted to wait until he heard where Mayor Ed Lee stood on Tasers.
For the record, Lee backs Tasers for the Police Department — sort of.
"Mayor Lee supports researching Tasers," said spokeswoman Christine Falvey. "He wants to explore possible alternatives to lethal force, and Tasers are potentially a good option."
A year ago, the commission rejected a Taser proposal that would have researched guidelines for use. In other words, the commission voted, 4-3, to not even look into the idea.
That can't happen this time.
The good news is that three new members have joined the commission — Chan, Jamie Slaughter, and Carol Kingsley — so a fresh look is likely.
Chan will probably vote against Tasers, but she has certainly looked into the issue.
"I have tried to find as many experts as possible," she said.
The problem is that the experts can't agree. Chan cites the Braidwood Inquiry, a Canadian study of "conducted energy weapons." She says the report shows that in police departments with Tasers, "officer-involved shootings are not down, victim shootings are not down, and lawsuits are not down."
However, there's also data in the same report that supports the use of Tasers, provided strict training and guidelines are followed.
Proponents of Tasers, like commission President Tom Mazzucco, will reference the nationally recognized Police Executive Research Forum, whose report shows dramatically lower numbers for officer-involved shootings when departments can use a Taser. That agency's executive director, Chuck Wexler, will speak to the commission.
"Look," says Mazzucco, "the use of force is never pretty. I wish there was some magical device that would just freeze the person in his tracks. There's not. So I'd just like to see the commission open it up to a pilot program and see what works."
The Taser discussion comes just as the commission unanimously approved crisis intervention training to deal with the mentally ill. Someone is bound to ask why Tasers are needed if the training works.
"Crisis intervention with the mentally ill is a totally separate issue from Tasers," said interim Police Chief Jeff Godown. "Last year one of our sergeants was thrown through a plate glass window. That's what we are talking about."
Statistics will be flying Wednesday, and conflicting testimony and data are expected. But that doesn't change the central point:
Tasers are far from perfect, but they are the best alternative available.
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