SF police commission votes to prohibit shooting at moving vehicles

The use of force policy prohibits the city's officers from shooting at moving vehicles or using carotid restraints

By Vivian Ho
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Police Commission approved a use-of-force policy Wednesday that would prohibit the city's police officers from shooting at moving vehicles or using carotid restraints.

The policy passed unanimously despite several hours of heated debate and harsh words from members of the public — as well as a lawsuit filed by the police union on Tuesday over the stalled negotiations regarding those two specific sections of the policy.

San Francisco interim police chief Toney Chaplin addresses the media in San Francisco, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.
San Francisco interim police chief Toney Chaplin addresses the media in San Francisco, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Sudhin Thanawala)

"I understand the emotion and the fatigue and the frustration," Police Commission President Suzy Loftus said after a particularly heated exchange during the meeting. "But I think it's important in this process to remember that this commission is designed and intended to keep the public safe, preserve life and keep the officers safe."

Wednesday's vote marks the end of a year-long process that began when five city police officers opened fire on Mario Woods, a suspect in a stabbing incident, in the Bayview neighborhood in December of 2015.

The shooting of the African American man sparked outrage and calls for reform after it was caught on smartphone video, prompting the commission to reopen the Police Department's use-of-force policy for the first time since 1995.

A version of the policy that strongly regulates officers' decisions during perilous encounters and puts an emphasis on using minimal force was passed in June, with the union and community stakeholders "agreeing to disagree" on the issue of shooting at moving vehicles and use of carotid restraints.

The hope was that the two sides could reach a compromise on those two sections during the meet-and-confer negotiations afforded to the San Francisco Police Officers Association for any changes in working conditions, but an impasse was declared in October.

On Wednesday night, city attorneys held that these two issues are considered a management right, not a change in working conditions, and the commission moved forward on the vote.

The U.S. Department of Justice's community-policing division and President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing both recommend restricting officers from shooting at vehicles and banning carotid restraints.

The debate around carotid restraints gained the most attention at Wednesday's meeting, where most attendees expected the majority of the discussion to be focused on shooting at moving vehicles.

Proponents for the carotid hold have long argued it's a necessary tactic for smaller officers against larger subjects, but many experts warn that too often, a carotid hold can shift into a fatal choke-hold, much like in the case of Eric Garner in New York.

Several commissioners suggested they keep carotid holds as a part of the policy with a special section indicating that the commission intended to eliminate the technique "until an acceptable, intermediary force option can be identified."

One such force option would be the use of electric stun guns, a fraught topic in San Francisco and a tool that has been rejected by the public time and time again. But after much discussion, the commission voted 4 to 3 to prohibit the carotid hold entirely.

To address reservations around the issue of prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles, commissioners added an extra caveat to the policy's preamble that would allow for officers to break policy in an extraordinary circumstance.

That would allow for officers to shoot at a moving vehicle if an attack similar to those in Nice, France and Berlin, where drivers plowed through crowds of bystanders, were to take place in San Francisco -- a point the union has long used to argue for a more lenient policy.

Experts say permitting officers to shoot at any vehicle also allows them to put themselves in perilous situations -- such as stepping in the way of a car -- where they are forced to shoot their way out, when really in many situations, the driver's goal may be to flee, not to hurt or kill anyone. In May, a San Francisco sergeant fatally shot an unarmed African American woman in a stolen car, a shooting that prompted the resignation of then Chief Greg Suhr.

While many members of the public seemed satisfied with the final policy, the police union began fighting it before the commission had even voted.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, union officials called for an injunction on the policy, claiming that the Police Commission violated the union's collective bargaining rights.

Alan Schlosser, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who helped develop the policy, said he was unconcerned with the union's lawsuit.

"I don't think there's any question that the use of force policy and those two issues are policy matters that are not mandatory subjects of bargaining and are not subject to arbritration," he said.

He called the new policy "an important transformational document."

"I think that the Police Commission stayed the course and adopted a policy that fulfilled the mayor's promise to re-engineer use of force," Schlosser said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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