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Friday, December 4, 2015

Would Mario Woods Still be Alive if the SFPD had TASERs?

Posted By on Fri, Dec 4, 2015 at 1:02 PM


Many San Franciscans want to know whether the SFPD could have subdued 26-year-old Mario Woods without killing him on Wednesday afternoon. The department has made a point of saying that officers did try to disarm Woods first, by blasting him with pepper spray and then pelting him with beanbags.

Obviously, the cops felt that didn’t work.

Could they have done more? Or done something differently? We may never know, because despite troubling video evidence of the shooting, none of us was in those cops’ shoes in the heat of the moment.

But it’s possible that a single piece of equipment that SFPD officers have long lacked could have ended the standoff without bloodshed.

“For a department to not have a TASER in 2015 is, well, I don’t want to throw these guys under the bus, but it’s a significant mistake,” says Steve Ijames, the use-of-force expert for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Ijames, a 38-year veteran (retired as of last week), wrote the association’s policy on non-lethal and “less-lethal” weapons.

He’s also played guinea pig for a variety of police-issue weapons (“I don’t even want to tell you how many times I’ve been tased,” he says) and has twice been shot in the line of duty. He says that TASERs, which have never been issued to the SFPD, despite lobbying from then-Chief of Police George Gascón, can be risky tools in their own right but are theoretically ideal for the sort of standoff that killed Woods.

“I’ve been tased and I’ve seen people tased. I wouldn’t quite describe it as paralysis: some of them lock up, some of them flop and jump. But there’s no way you’re using your hands," Ijames says.

He cautions that TASERs are risky because they’re not effective outside of 15 feet or so. Although it’s hard to tell, the various videos of the Woods shooting seem to show officers creeping at least that close to him. We can’t say whether any of them could have safely or effectively employed a TASER, but if anybody had, he’d definitely have dropped that knife.

Since TASERs are not part of the SFPD kit, the department says that officers instead hit Woods with beanbags. A beanbag round (the industry term is “flexible baton”) is not actually filled with beans, nor with the cushiony plastic pellets inside beanbag chairs. The most common type are composed of lead shot, wrapped in a cloth “sock" — a design largely unchanged since the late ‘60s.

Beanbags can be deployed from a regular 12-gauge shotgun or a specialized launcher, depending on the model. (No one at the SFPD was available to comment on exactly what kind of ammunition the department uses.) The effect is comparable to being beaned with a fastball from a decent MLB pitcher.

That’s painful enough to prevent most people from escaping, resisting arrest, or doing much of anything except howling. But the SFPD insists that beanbags didn’t stop Woods, even after five hits. On average, it takes three hits for a suspect to cry uncle, but the world record is 135, so there’s no strict formula. The question of when to throw in the towel is highly subjective.

If the suspect is mentally ill, under the influence of certain drugs, or in some other way “disconnected from his body,” as Ijames says, it’s possible he or she might not notice the pain.

“We once hit an 81-year-old man with 11 of these things,” Ijames says. “He didn’t even blink. It’s a great video.”

(That suspect was eventually disarmed when a beanbag broke his hand.)

In Wednesday's videos, Woods is hunched over and seems to have trouble walking. Is he in pain? Is he intoxicated? It’s difficult to say. If he was in a state of “disconnect,” that’s what TASERs were designed for, since they shut down motor control. But no one at the SFPD had one.

We'll never know for sure what would have happened if different decisions had been made or if different options were available.

But if the one thing the police and the public can agree on is that nobody ever wants to have to kill a person in the line of duty, it’s worth asking why one of the tools most likely to prevent that wasn’t even there.

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Adam Brinklow

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