Zisser: Can we trust the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office to use ‘less lethal’ but still deadly Tasers?
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office is requesting to arm its deputies with Tasers. File photo.

Conducted energy devices — Tasers — conduct electricity into a human being’s body to disrupt the neuromuscular system of that person. They can cause death, and of course there is risk of abuse by officers.

Various local community and civil rights groups are advocating, as recently as this week, against the adoption of these weapons by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office and have expressed concern about oversight, the process and the devices themselves.

The oversight agency, OCLEM, and its head, veteran practitioner and former civil rights prosecutor Mike Gennaco, are taking heat from the local NAACP and others for not weighing in on whether Tasers should be adopted and instead collaborating with the sheriff on drafting the policy. OCLEM should recognize the Board of Supervisors benefits from its opinion, and Board President Susan Ellenberg, in clarifying what she said earlier this week, told me OCLEM should indeed feel free to weigh in.

The sheriff’s office must show that the reforms it has implemented, the new leadership and new oversight have in fact manifested in solid use of force practices. It must demonstrate that its deputies can be trusted to wield a serious weapon. It is simply not enough to cite studies that show using Tasers can result in reduced incidence of injuries.

OCLEM has indicated it will soon put out a report that studied uses of force by deputies. OCLEM will need to speak clearly about where things stand in terms of agency culture.

Why even allow a pilot program, which the board of supervisors seems keen on, before there is a clearer picture of current use of force practices? OCLEM and the sheriff have emphasized the importance of a strong written policy along with training and oversight, but have deputies shown a commitment to complying with other similar policies? The written policy leaves a lot of discretion to officers, with lots of exceptions to the general rule that require officers to use keen judgment.

But even the written policy isn’t quite there yet. It does not, for example, address people experiencing a mental health crisis, a population that faces heightened effects and risk of Taser use. When I spoke with Gennaco this week — disclosure: I worked on a consulting project with Gennaco in 2016 — he agreed this is an important population to focus on and that officers on the mental health unit of the jail should not carry Tasers.

Finally, even if Tasers reduce injuries, this cannot be the only relevant metric. What kinds of injuries are reduced? Serious ones that could lead to death? Does the use of Tasers enhance an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and dehumanization? Does the pain and humiliation inflicted outweigh the reduction in injuries? What is the lasting trauma?

The county needs to hear from a broad range of community members on these questions. Gennaco is meeting with the community oversight committee on Monday and presenting to the committee in August. Much more outreach is warranted, as OCLEM, too, seeks the community’s trust in providing oversight of use of force.

Before agreeing to arm officers with a new dangerous weapon, the board must assess the culture and readiness of the sheriff’s office. It must hear from those incarcerated in the jail, review academic studies and hear more from its own oversight agency. It certainly should not just hand over millions of dollars to a department that still has a lot to prove before it should be trusted to deploy electricity on caged human beings.

San José Spotlight columnist Aaron B. Zisser is a civil rights attorney based in San Jose (www.zisserlaw.com). He previously served as San Jose’s Independent Police Auditor and the Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Coordinator at Santa Clara University, investigated or oversaw investigations of police conduct in San Francisco and Oakland, and consulted on police, jail, and prison oversight. Early in his career, he spent more than five years investigating and monitoring correctional, mental health, and educational agencies as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and worked at a nonprofit civil rights organization in Philadelphia. His opinions are his own. His columns appear every first Friday of the month. Contact Aaron at [email protected].

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