A week after the San Francisco Police Department abandoned its proposal to issue stun guns to a select few officers, a fatal officer-involved shooting proved why it was the wrong decision.
San Francisco has long resisted providing its police officers with stun guns — frequently referred to as Tasers, although that is the name of a specific brand of device. For years, San Francisco police chiefs have sought approval from the Police Commission to purchase stun guns. The commission, a citizens oversight body, steadfastly disapproved on numerous occasions.
Opponents of stun guns say police officers should be trained so that they do not have to use any weapon, even a stun gun, in any situation, no matter what. But a fatal shooting this past week shows that such idealism is simply not realistic.
On Wednesday evening, in a call to 911, a man reported that he had been stabbed. As we now know, the 60-year-old caller had actually stabbed his brother-in-law before phoning police to report the incident. But once police arrived, the man emerged from the doorway brandishing over his head what was later determined to be a hammer. After numerous demands from the police that he drop the weapon, one officer fired at the advancing man. He later died at the hospital.
San Francisco police officers already have access to less-than-lethal weapons, including bean bag guns. But the problem is that they have to make a special call to request the weapons. In some situations, when there is sufficient time to deploy a less-than-lethal option to incapacitate a person, the police should choose that option. But the reality of police work is that many life-or-death situations unfold much too quickly, and officers must respond with tools they have at their immediate disposal. In San Francisco, that option is their service weapon.
What San Francisco’s police officers need is a less-than-lethal option that they can carry on their body at all times. At this time, there are really no viable options other than stun guns. Other less-than-lethal weapons are too bulky or large for officers to carry and deploy in the split-second time in which they sometimes need to react.
In reviving his department’s call for a practical less-than-lethal weapon, Police Chief Greg Suhr conservatively proposed giving stun guns to just 103 officers specially trained to deal with people who suffer from a mental illness. The pilot program he proposed would have required vigorous reporting back to the Police Commission about when and how the stun guns were used, if ever. But in response to a growing laundry list of restrictions that would have tied the hands of his officers, the chief decided to withdraw his proposal as no longer workable.
In the wake of the latest unfortunate office-involved shooting, the chief should bring back his proposal and the Police Commission should approve it. Such a pilot program would allow for a controlled experiment in use of such weapons, which are typically less than lethal. Following a successful pilot program, all San Francisco police officers should then be trained and issued stun guns.
Yes, it is almost certain that one day some officer will use a stun gun inappropriately. But the alternative outcome is that officers will continue to carry only service weapons, with the sad outcome of more deaths.