San Jose approves nearly $5M contract to buy Tasers

Despite community opposition, the San Jose City Council unanimously approved a nearly $5 million contract on Tuesday to purchase new Tasers for the city's police department.

Community leaders from the Bill Wilson Center, Asian Law Alliance and other advocacy groups want the city to stop investing more into the "already inflated" police budget and instead, reinvest into community programs -- a sentiment shared by thousands of protestors who took to the streets following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police.

On the other hand, police say Tasers are essential less-lethal tools that keep officers and the community safe.

And since the current Tasers were purchased between April 2014-2016, they are nearing their 7-year shelf life and breaking down on a daily basis, acting Assistant Police Chief David Tindall said.

But for Sparky Harlan, CEO of the Bill Wilson Center, the debate isn't whether Tasers are effective tools.

She and other advocates are opposed to the contract because the community was not consulted first, especially in a time of economic hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The frustrating part of the Taser issue is that there are a lot of us who are working on not defunding, but more accurately, repurposing some money from police into community response to 911 calls," Harlan said. "We need funding and those $5 million could go a long way."

Harlan sits on a Mental Health Behavioral Contract committee, a coalition of county-contracted local nonprofit groups working to develop alternative ways to respond to mental health crises and non-emergency calls such as noise complaints with experts trained to resolve conflicts.

"We were hoping that the City Council would slow down to have a conversation first," Harlan said. "For me, that would look like a task force so that the City Council and police could hear whether there are better uses than Tasers and what happens when someone is shot with a Taser."

Councilmember Sylvia Arenas suggested the city instead approve a one-year contract, wait until the completed independent police auditor's review next spring and meet with the community before finalizing the remainder of the $4 million of general fund money.

"If we are going to have a tool in our toolbox [the new Taser] is one I would like to have, but yet we have this obligation that I feel we had with our community in terms of what their input is," Arenas said in the meeting. "The timing is off because we are going to purchase something regardless of what the community says."

However, city staff said renegotiating the contract with Axon, the Taser provider, would be difficult if not impossible, and Tindall said the police force couldn't afford to wait much longer. "Roughly every officer, lieutenant and higher command do not carry Tasers because they are essentially being repurposed again and by the time we get to January and February, we can't provide replacements or issue Tasers to new recruits," Tindall said.

So far this year, Tasers have been deployed roughly 70 times, Tindall said. In comparison, Tasers were used over 90 times in 2019. The acting assistant police chief also said that the new Taser 7 would increase accountability and safety in part because of its new technology -- it automatically turns on officer body cameras when deployed, updates deployment history in real-time to a cloud-based system and can be redeployed soon after being used -- unlike the current Tasers.

Tindall also pointed to a 2011 report from the National Institute of Justice that found serious injury or death among arrestees decreased 40 to 60 percent and officer injuries were reduced by more than 70 percent since police departments started using Tasers in the early 2000s.

"In our [police] opinion, Tasers are the most valued de-escalation techniques we have because they are involuntary. When you look at impact weapons and their deployment, a lot of that ends up being pain-compliance and the use of pain-compliance to get an end result.

With Tasers it's nonvoluntary," Tindall said. However, Richard Konda of the Asian Law Alliance, who spoke during public comment, said Tasers are proving to be lethal, with more than 1,000 deaths since 2000, according to a 2017 Reuters report.

Several council members recognized improvements could be made in the way police use Tasers but agreed it was an important intermediate use of force.

"We have two different conversations here. One is the actual use of this tool and how it can be utilized differently, and I certainly think that warrants discussion and as we have this reimagining public safety opportunity coming forward that is the right time," Councilmember and former San Jose police officer Raul Peralez said. "In the meantime, this is an extremely useful tool that has been proven useful. I [speak] from personal experience."

The Taser contract will be paid for in five installments over five years.

The first year's funding of over $900,000 will be from a Supplemental Law Enforcement Services Grant and the remaining amount of nearly $4 million will be from the general fund.