Controversial Tasers eyed again in San Francisco

Tasers, long debated and always defeated in San Francisco, are getting another look.

The Police Commission held a study session Wednesday night, hearing from experts on the pros and cons of the devices.

"These weapons are going to be very expensive to deploy, and deploy safely and effectively, " Mike Leonesio told the commission.

Leonesio helped establish the use of Tasers among officers at the Oakland Police Department before becoming a weapons instructor and researcher. He was among those sharing his findings with the commission.
"What I'm hearing is the newer weapons just don't work as good as the old ones did," he told them, while estimating it would cost between $8,000 to $10,000 per officer, for start-up equipment and training.

Police Chief Bill Scott, who took command in January, wants every officer on the force to have a Taser.

Before him, a half-dozen police chiefs also advocated for Tasers, along with the police officers union, but community opposition never allowed the idea to gain traction.

The killing of Mario Woods in 2015 renewed the debate. Officers shot Woods, allegedly armed with a knife, as he shuffled along a sidewalk. Bean bag rounds and pepper spray had already failed to disarm him.

"I do believe we can minimize and reduce officer injuries, and more importantly injuries to our residents," Chief Scott told those assembled at City Hall.

"It will give us a less lethal option with the spirit of what we're after, preserving life and the sanctity of life."  
San Francisco is the last big city in America to reject the devices.
"These weapons do have what I consider a high failure rate," cautioned Leonesio, in his presentation.  

He said 30- to 50 percent of the time, depending on the data, Tasers don't effectively subdue the suspect, and that puts officers at risk because they are at close range, between 7-15 feet, to fire. .
"So think about what you are going to do if this weapon doesn't work? What are you going to transition to?" posed Leonesio. "How do you get out of that danger zone if you need to?"

Sometimes it's mechanical failure, he explained, and sometimes it's because the subject is in bulky clothing or positioned in a way the electrical darts don't attach.  

"If they're sitting on a chair, if they're behind a desk, if they're in a car, it's going to limit the amount of body that's exposed," observed Leonesio.

Commissioners had questions for the half-dozen experts who participated.

And as they wade through copious research, members were warned the data that exists is for Tasers that are no longer on the market. Past Tasers were more powerful than today's.

Manufacturers reduced the electrical output after people suffered heart attack and death. 

"My son was taught to respect law enforcement," said veteran police officer Matt Masters, who is with the Kansas City, Missouri police force.

Masters called in to share his story, after almost losing his own son to a police Taser.

"He was clinically dead for eight minutes," said an emotional Masters, sharing photos of the traffic stop in which the teenager was Tased for 23 seconds straight, stopping his heart.

"The officer said he held the trigger down because he thought the Taser wasn't working and having no affect on Bryce," recounted Masters.

The straight-A student was left with brain damage. The officer who Tased him was sentenced to four years in prison.

And Masters, who had enthusiastically taught Taser use to other cops, changed his mind about them. 

   "A Taser is sold as an alternative to deadly force, but they're all too often used in cases like my son," warned Masters.

The commission listened somberly, then heard some limited public comment on both sides of the issue.

There will be at least two community forums for the public to weigh in on Tasers before the commission takes a vote.