A shocking omission

On Dec. 29, the police responded to the call of a young woman who had been stabbed. When entering the residence, the police were attacked by a man wielding what appeared to be a scalpel. The man was shot by an officer and later died.

On Jan. 4, the police responded to a call of a man in a wheelchair wielding a knife and puncturing tires. The officers used pepper spray and a “beanbag” shotgun in an attempt to subdue the man. These had no effect and one of the officers was stabbed. Subsequently, the man was shot by the police but did not sustain life-threatening injuries.

In both of these cases, the suspect appeared to have mental health problems.

SFPD has performed a study of officer-involved shootings (OIS) from January 2005 through August 2009. During that time, there were 15 OIS of which 8 were fatal. The subjects of OIS had an average of 15 prior arrests at the time of the incident; 5 had mental health problems and 10 had drug or alcohol problems. Four of the eight fatal incidents showed signs of being “suicide by cop.”

During that same period, SFPD responded to over six million calls for service and made 150,000 arrests. There was one OIS for every 408,000 police contacts. SFPD responds to an average 16 calls per day that result in the subject being held for psychological evaluation. About 10 percent of the SFPD workday is spent dealing with persons with mental health problems.

The purpose of quoting these statistics is not to express any judgment about the mental health issues in our City, but to suggest that we cannot necessarily expect people involved in violent acts to respond to warnings in a rational manner. In such a circumstance, it is essential for the police to have a nonlethal means of subduing violent suspects. The Jan. 4 incident indicates that pepper spray and beanbags do achieve that end. It is easy to philosophize after the event on ways that these situations might be resolved, but one must consider that the responding officer is thrust into a violent situation and must make immediate decisions.

Both of these incidents could probably have been resolved without injury by using a Taser stun gun. San Francisco is one of only three major cities whose police do not have Tasers. Last year, the police chief proposed equipping the department with Tasers, but the request was rejected by the police commission following opposition from the ACLU. At a meeting held in the Marina in January, the chief told the police commission that he would renew his request for Tasers this year. Whether the move of the chief to the district attorney’s office will change that request remains to be seen.

Being the target of a Taser is certainly shocking (from an electrical perspective), but not giving our police officers that nonlethal alternative is a more shocking omission.

Alan Silverman is a Marina resident and a board member of the Marina Community Association. E-mail: