sfpd_cityhall.jpgA proposal to equip San Francisco police officers with Tasers was met with stiff opposition today at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing by civil rights and homeless advocates as well as some supervisors who questioned the need for the devices.

The hearing at the board’s public safety committee was called by Supervisor John Avalos and focused on a pilot program for Tasers that was requested of the Police Commission in August by police Chief Greg Suhr.

The commission has delayed a decision on the request for several months but could return to the issue next month after the department holds three community meetings to explain its need for the Tasers, Suhr told the committee today.

Suhr said the devices would allow officers to “engage those people in crisis with one more tool in their toolbox before being seriously injured or killed themselves.”

He said he made the request after a July 18 incident in which an officer fatally shot a man who allegedly lunged at her with a box cutter in the city’s Financial District.

“The Taser would’ve been a better option,” Suhr said. “It certainly would’ve been a less-lethal option.”

Avalos was skeptical, arguing that before seeking a new weapon for officers, the Police Department should focus more on fully implementing a crisis intervention training program established in February 2011 that focuses on de-escalation tactics rather than the use of force.

The sentiment was shared by other supervisors on the committee, including Christina Olague, who said she was worried that giving an officer a Taser “would be creating a culture where it’s OK for an officer to use a weapon.”

Michaela Davis, an attorney for the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also echoed those statements, saying it was “entirely premature to invest in a pilot program for Tasers in this city.”

Davis said the devices are often viewed as harmless when they actually “cause excruciating pain and pose the risk of serious injury or death.”

She said, “Even if this is introduced as a pilot program, once it’s institutionalized, you run the risk of it becoming a department-wide phenomenon.”

Many of the dozens of people who spoke against the proposal at today’s hearing were volunteers with the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness.

Jennifer Friedenbach, the coalition’s executive director, said the idea of police using Tasers “makes me feel physically sick.”

Friedenbach said, “De-escalation works, it works every day in San Francisco.”

But police Cmdr. Mikail Ali, who has been overseeing the implementation of the crisis intervention program, noted that many police calls often come from medical professionals who are trained to deal with people suffering from mental health issues but fear someone may be a danger to others.

“Words do not always work,” Ali said. “If the medical professionals have difficulty doing it … surely we can’t expect our officers to always be able to.”

The first of the three community meetings on Tasers is scheduled for Jan. 9, Suhr said. He said a location for the meeting has yet to be determined.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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