By Evan Sernoffsky San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — A vote by San Francisco supervisors this week to abruptly cut funding for police Tasers has stirred doubt about whether officers will ever get the weapons they’ve been trying to add as standard equipment for nearly a decade.
Police rank-and-file and opponents of Tasers alike see a possible unraveling of work by the San Francisco Police Department, the city’s Police Commission, the officers’ union and others who have been in contentious negotiations over the rollout of the electronic stun guns.
“The policy goes through an arduous process and all of that seemingly could be lost, which would be a shame,” said Rick Andreotti, vice president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. “My concern is, what kind of message does that send to the men and women of the San Francisco Police Department? That politics is more important than not only their safety, but the safety of the people of San Francisco.”
Taser opponents, though, welcomed the stall, with some holding out hope the city will kill the plan to arm officers with the weapons, which the Police Commission approved in November.
“There’s definitely some momentum there for the supervisors to take a step back and see where we’re at,” said Alex Post, co-chair of the Justice Committee for the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America. “I think given the studies indicating Tasers don’t reduce police shootings, I think it makes sense to consider other options.”
On Monday, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer introduced a motion at a meeting of the board’s Budget and Finance Committee to cut funding for Tasers next year and shelve the cash for the following year. It passed 3-2, with Supervisors Malia Cohen and Norman Yee also voting in favor.
Fewer, a progressive, said she doesn’t support officers having Tasers but said her decision to eliminate the funding was about cost, not politics.
“I feel my job on the budget committee is to weigh everything with a budget focus,” she said. “This has been about fiscal and financial responsibility. That’s what the people of San Francisco deserve.”
Fewer cited a report by the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office that estimated Tasers would cost $7 million up-front in equipment and training costs. The Police Department was requesting $3.5 million.
Police Cmdr. PeterWalsh, who has been overseeing the implementation of Tasers, told the committee the analyst’s report was inaccurate. Its estimated cost for the weapons was based on the $2,200 the Sheriff’s Department paid for each of its Tasers more than a decade ago. Walsh said the Police Department would probably pay less than $1,600 per weapon.
“We’re talking about a $600 difference, and if you multiply that across 2,000 officers, that’s a dramatic drop,” he said.
The report also factored in training costs, which Walsh said won’t cost the police force anything because training is covered by the department’s regular staffing.
With Tasers on hold, there’s an opening that could allow city lawmakers to take them off the table altogether.
When new District Eight Supervisor Rafael Mandelman takes office in two weeks, the majority on the Board of Supervisors will shift from moderate to progressive. And the board will change fundamentally in January — in the November election five seats will be decided, only two held by incumbents.
What’s more, the Police Commission, which voted to equip officers with Tasers and approved the policy for their use, has also been reshaped recently.
Former commission President Julius Turman died last month, Commissioner Bill Hing did not seek reappointment, and the supervisors didn’t approve the reappointment of Commissioners Joe Marshall and Sonia Melara, who both supported Tasers and were seen as being aligned with the police union.
Marshall and Melara lost favor with progressives on the board in part by declining to sign onto a ballot argument opposing Proposition H, a measure put forth by the police union in this month’s election that would have armed officers with Tasers by the end of the year and would have instituted a more lenient policy on their use.
The proposed law could only have been changed at the ballot box or by a four-fifths vote of the Board of Supervisors. The measure forced the Police Commission to adopt a policy on Tasers before the election, in part to sway voters away from Prop. H.
John Crew, a retired American Civil Liberties Union attorney who’s been active in discussions around Tasers in San Francisco, welcomed Fewer’s move to drop the funding. He said the police union’s move with Prop. H may raise questions in any future Taser use-of-force incidents that violate department policy.
“We cannot pretend the last eight months didn’t happen,” he said. “The Police Commission voted that we’re going to do Tasers, and there could have been an orderly process of how to budget them and roll them out. But the police officers association chose to blow it up and tried to undercut the chief and the commission with Prop. H.”
Proposals to equip San Francisco police with Tasers have been repeatedly shot down over the last decade, making the department the last major urban force in the country without them. The U.S. Department of Justice strongly recommended San Francisco police get Tasers when it did a top-to-bottom review of the department following controversial police shootings.
Before moving forward with a Taser policy, the Police Department held numerous public meetings to gather community input. The policy ultimately adopted by the Police Commission is more restrictive than many other Bay Area jurisdictions.
The weapons have long been controversial because some people who were shocked have died, and critics have questioned whether they actually reduce deadly use-of-force incidents.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott says his department is moving forward with training and planning for stun guns.
Still, losing Tasers altogether is seen as a long shot by people on both sides of the issue. Fewer said she’s waiting for documentation from the Police Department countering the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office report.
“You can always request a midyear budget appropriation,” she said. “We do that all the time.”
Police Chief Bill Scott said he’s working to get the necessary paperwork to submit to the board and in the meantime is moving forward internally with training and planning for when his officers, he hopes, eventually get Tasers.
“We will continue with the things we had to do with implementation,” he said. “It’s just a matter of timing.”
©2018 the San Francisco Chronicle