The San Francisco Police Officers Association is campaigning on behalf of a proposed ballot initiative, Proposition H, that if passed by voters on June 5, would establish Taser guidelines more relaxed than those already put in place by the city’s police commission. According to Prop. H proponents, the ballot measure would get Tasers into officers hands by the end of 2018. Critics of the measure have complained that the union’s Prop. H literature doesn’t make it clear that the department already has a Taser use policy in place, with plans to arm officers with the weapons later this year.
Prop. H has a long list of opponents that includes the ACLU, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, SF District Attorney George Gascón, SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and the city’s mayor, Mark Farrell, a longtime friend of the police union. Farrell initially came out in support of the measure, but has since reversed his stance on the issue, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Farrell says that the SF Police Commission’s own Taser use policy, finalized in March, is a policy that “works best for the community and for our officers.”
In November 2017, the San Francisco Police Commission voted 4-3 in favor of arming the city’s officers with stun guns starting in December 2018. SF is one of the nation’s only large cities whose officers are not equipped with Tasers. (By that time, the debate about whether to arm officers with stun guns, which are meant to provide cops with a non-lethal weapon option, had been raging for months. Critics have argued that shocks from a Taser can sometimes prove fatal, especially for mentally ill inmates on medication.)
The commission’s policy says that officers can use a Taser on a person who is “violently” resisting officers’ attempt to arrest them. Cops can also employ tasers against people who armed with a non-firearm weapon, like “an edged weapon or blunt object,” and who are injuring or threatening to injure a police officer or civilian. If a person is threatening harm, officers must have “reasonable belief that the subject has the intent and capability of carrying out the threat.”
The policy bans officers from using the weapons against people who are elderly, obviously pregnant, look frail, if they appear to be a child, or if there is “credible” info that the person has a serious psychiatric illness or another obvious medical condition.
Officers must complete crisis-intervention training in order to carry the weapons.
Like the commission’s policy, under Prop. H, officers must complete training before using stun guns on the streets. The SFPD would also be required to conduct an investigation each time an officer used a Taser. Additionally, the SFPD would be required to have defibrillators in patrol cars in the districts where Tasers are in use, in case a person went into cardiac arrest after being shocked.
The POA’s rules for Taser use under Prop. H are less restrictive than those created by the police commissioners, whose job it is to set policy for the department.
Prop. H would allow officers to shock an individual who is “actively” resisting arrest, while the commission’s policy says a person must be “violently” resisting. The POA’s president, Martin Halloran, argues in the POA’s newsletter that the “actively resisting” language “is consistent with the language in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Taser policy, Oakland Police Department policy and San Jose Police Department’s policy.”
According to the ACLU, “if Prop H passes, San Francisco police will be allowed to use a Taser on someone who is unarmed and poses no immediate physical threat, or on someone who says no to a police order due to confusion or mental illness.”
Additionally, any amendment to the measure would have to be approved by a majority of the city and county’s voters, or by a four-fifths vote by the SF Board of Supervisors.
Because of this rule, the ACLU of Northern California has called Prop. H an “unprecedented power grab,” that would undermine the police commission and Chief Scott’s authority, and make it difficult to adjust the policy, if needed, or to update it to match changing national best practices.
Scott–who was revealed Wednesday to be one of the final three candidates vying to take the helm of the Los Angeles Police Department–initially appeared as if he might remain neutral on the ballot measure. The chief ultimately chose to speak out against Prop. H, calling it the “antithesis of the spirit” of the U.S. Department of Justice’s recommended reforms for the SFPD.
The measure “would not promote a nimble process allowing modifications or changes to [stun gun] related policies if the changes are inconsistent with the measure,” Chief Scott said in a letter to the SF Department of Elections. “Moreover, it is not a national best practice to promulgate policing operational policies relating to equipment usage and regulation by voter majority or a four-fifths vote of a legislative entity such as the Board of Supervisors. This responsibility to set and make policy adjustments and the responsibility to manage the operations of the Department should rest with the Police Commission and the Chief of Police respectively.”
San Francisco Chronicle recommends residents vote against Prop. H. “The terms [of the SFPD Taser policy] should be left to the commission, which can adjust standards as events warrant,” the SF Chron states. “That can’t happen as easily under this measure, a drawback at a time when police and community trust are critical.”
The San Francisco Examiner, too, called Prop. H a measure “designed to deceive unwary voters.”
The POA “wants to override regulations on TASERs imposed by civilian oversight by taking policy to the ballot, where they can massively outspend communities & government leaders and wage a deceptive campaign to loosen TASER rules,” said Peter Bibring, ACLU of Southern California senior staff attorney and director of policing practices.
The May 2018 edition of the POA’s newsletter announces that the union will soon “pay members’ kids between the ages of 12-17 $10.00 an hour to help pass out informational pamphlets” on Prop. H with their parents.
The powerful POA has been accused by the ACLU and others of using hefty campaign contributions and “scare tactics” to stand in the way of department reform. For example, the union brought negotiations over a new use-of-force policy to a halt, and sued the city, because it did not want officers to lose the right to use carotid chokeholds and shoot into moving vehicles.
In March, several members of the SF Board of Supervisors backed advocates’ calls to Mayor Farrell to try to force the union to agree to police reforms in exchange for the boosts in salary that the POA had been trying to negotiate for months. The city was ready to leverage the contracts, but an arbitration panel decided in May that the POA had a legal right to keep fighting the DOJ’s recommended reforms and that officers would still get a 9 percent raise.
This story has been updated for clarity.
Image: U.S. Department of Defense – Military police and civilian law enforcement officers with the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Provost Marshals Office (PMO) fire the Taser X26 during their annual Taser training aboard MCAS Miramar, California, July 15.