Advocates Push For Alternatives to the Use of Tasers in Dealing with Mentally Ill Subjects

taserIn 2008, Ricardo Abrahams had checked into the Safe Harbor, part of the Yolo Community Care Continuum, upon the urging of his family due to a condition where he was increasingly disoriented, stressed and uncommunicative. 

At some point he left the facility.  Concerned about his well-being, the facility alerted the police.  When the police arrived, a confrontation ensued where Mr. Abrahams anxiety escalated to the point where police feared for his safety and their safety.

Although all he had was a pencil, he was repeatedly Tasered and finally the police jumped on him in an effort to subdue him.  While face down, his large size apparently led to his own asphyxiation and death.

The question of police relations with mentally ill individuals is one of increasing attention and scrutiny.

Last month, many in this community proclaimed the Davis Police Department to be heroes for their handling of a potential disaster involving a distraught student, who, thanks to good police work, was brought into custody unharmed.

However, many such encounters do not end well.  Critics often claim that Tasers are overused and misused in confrontations with mentally ill individuals.  However, the alternatives have some problems as well.

Back in January of this year, the San Francisco police department, following two officer-involved shootings in January of mentally ill individuals, have renewed their request to reinstate the use of Tasers in their department.

In a March 2010 editorial, the San Francisco Chronicle argued, “Tasers, while less lethal  than firearms, are a significant level of force. They often are viewed as harmless, non-lethal devices that incapacitate individuals with little or no risk. This is false.”

They wrote, “At that hearing it was reported that a UC San Francisco  study found that, in the year after Tasers were deployed, aggregate data of 50 cities showed an increase in sudden deaths and officer-involved shootings. The physicians who authored the study recommended that if Tasers were to be deployed, officers should be instructed to shoot suspects in the back rather than the chest, the number of shocks should be limited, and that defibrillators should be given to officers.”

More importantly, they cite, “While Tasers are seen as an alternative to using guns on mentally ill persons, only half of SFPD officers have received crisis intervention training. Before deploying Tasers, SFPD should work with mental health experts to improve its interactions with mentally ill individuals. Doing so will lead to safer outcomes for both officers and the community.”

The editorial goes on to argue that Tasers are not always effective and cannot be relied upon in life-threatening situations.

They also cite statistics suggesting that they are overused.  For example, “When first deployed in San Jose, Tasers were reportedly used over 200 times per year; seven deaths were reported in incidents involving Tasers during the first five years of implementation there.”

Advocates of the Taser point to the fact that they are less likely to kill the subject or induce serious injury, but the key question is whether there is an alternative to the Taser to help resolve confrontations, particularly with mentally ill individuals who are less likely to be responsive to other approaches.

Both the ACLU and Amnesty International are urging the San Francisco Police Commission to prioritize implementation of a new crisis intervention program, instead of acquiring Tasers. Both groups point to the Commission’s recent adoption of the “Memphis Model” of crisis intervention training for the police force as a crucial step that should be fully implemented before adding new weapons.

“People with mental health issues are among the most likely to be subjected to Tasers, and are potentially at greater risk of being injured by them,” said Rini Chakraborty, Western Regional Director for Amnesty International USA. “The SFPD should focus on giving its officers the best training to de-escalate situations with mentally ill San Franciscans.”

According to the release from the ACLU, the Memphis Model, which originated in the Memphis Police Department in 1988, is a comprehensive approach to interacting with community members with mental health  issues.

The approach has received nationwide acclaim for its success in training officers and dispatchers, and developing sound protocol. Positive outcomes include fewer officer injuries as well as less need for use of force.

Additionally, Memphis police have achieved these outcomes without the use of Tasers. In February of this year, the San Francisco Police Commission voted unanimously to adopt the Memphis Model, a move the ACLU-NC and Amnesty International USA applaud.

According to researchers Sam Cochran, Martha Williams Deane, M.A. and Randy Borum, Psy.D., “the tragic shooting of a mentally ill person by a police officer in Memphis, Tennessee, led to the development of an innovative program for jail diversion and improvement of police response for mentally ill people in crisis: the Memphis crisis intervention team.”

Over time, the program has evolved and presently operates through a partnership between the Memphis chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the University of Memphis and other local mental health providers.

The program brings together law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals, consumers and advocates for the common goals of improving understanding of, and safety and service to, mentally ill individuals and their families.

They write, “When police emergency dispatchers are notified of an incident that may involve a person with mental illness, they assign that call to a crisis intervention team officer. The team officer goes immediately to the scene, assesses the situation to determine the nature of the complaint and the degree of risk, intervenes as necessary to ensure the safety of anyone involved, and then determines and implements an appropriate disposition.”

“The officer may resolve the situation at the scene through de-escalation, negotiation, or verbal crisis intervention. Alternatively, the officer may contact the case manager or treatment provider of the person in crisis, provide a referral to treatment services, or transport the person directly to the psychiatric emergency department of the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Memphis for further evaluation.”

As we reported last spring, in the wake of Mr. Abrahams’ death in 2008, the Woodland Police Department began training sessions that train officers on ways to defuse potentially volatile encounters with mentally ill and emotionally disturbed individuals, by using words instead of force.

Michael Summers, one of the coordinators of the training and a former Sacramento police officer, told the Sacramento Bee last year, “Cops often don’t have an understanding of how confused and frightened people can be when they’re in crisis, so the biggest thing is to slow things down.  We’re trying to get them to have a little bit of empathy.”

“Students practiced de-escalation techniques through role playing. Summers asked them to set aside weapons and work through improvised situations,” the Bee continued.  “Make sure people are communicating and understand you’re a police officer, he said. Determine if they may be hearing voices. And no laying on of hands, he said.”

Because police officers often have to respond in mental health crises, having a trained crisis intervention officer there can make a difference.  According to nurse Sharon Roth in the Bee article, people who call 911 can ask for one.

As Mr. Summer pointed out however, “there will always be tragic incidents between police and mental health consumers, but we can try to lessen them and educate for better outcomes.”

This is the point that the ACLU and Amnesty is trying to bring home.

“The SFPD should give the Memphis Model a chance before moving on to Tasers,” said Allen Hopper, Police Practices Policy Director at the ACLU of Northern California. “The idea that Tasers are harmless is false. They can cause serious and fatal injuries.”

According to the program page on the Memphis police site, “An increase in illegal narcotic/alcohol abuse and the “deinstitutionalzation” of mentally ill citizens has caused many to become homeless and potentially more violent which increases the chances of involvement with law enforcement. This increases the possibility for excessive force complaints and the inevitable backlash from the community.”

They continue, “Traditional police methods, misinformation, and a lack of sensitivity cause fear and frustration for consumers and their families. Too often, officers’ respond to crisis calls where they felt at a disadvantage or were placed in a no-win situation.”

The release calls Tasers “controversial devices and a relatively new technology. The science about their effects continues to evolve. They potentially pose even greater risks when used on people with mental or physical health problems.”

They argue, “The devices can be especially lethal for people taking medications or who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol—the very people who are most likely to have a Taser used on them.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “They argue, “The devices can be especially lethal for people taking medications or who are under the influence of drugs and alcohol—the very people who are most likely to have a Taser used on them.””

    Good argument for not legalizing drugs – alcohol and narcotics make people unpredictable and do things they ordinarily wouldn’t, especially those w mental illness and/or those already taking medication. For instance, Tylenol mixed w alcohol can be lethal, even if the Tylenol was taken the day before. It can cause liver damage…

    I’m all for better training of law enforcement. Law enforcement has a tough and dangerous job. Any additional non-lethal tools in their arsenal should be helpful in dealing w the mentally ill and the public’s perception of how law enforcement is doing its job. But better training/staffing often takes more money that states and cities just don’t have. It is important to find ways to bring the training to law enforcement, even if it takes innovative, non-costly ways to do it.

  2. Rifkin

    Speaking of the mentally ill … for those who have not followed the story of David Wu, a Congressman from Oregon, there have been widespread calls for him to step down, because it is thought he is suffering from some undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. I blogged about the story, today ([url][/url]).

  3. David M. Greenwald

    “But better training/staffing often takes more money that states and cities just don’t have.”

    I question this statement. First of all, police undergo training on a variety of things all of the time.

    Second, one thing that we learned in Davis, is when the police have better training and leadership, it cuts down on claims and lawsuits. I don’t know how much training costs, I don’t know what grants are available for such training programs, but it seems to me that it might be cheaper to do things right in the first place.

  4. Roger Rabbit

    The tazer is an advancement of non-lethal force. Long ago cops just shot people since all they had was a gun, then they started carrying saps, then sticks, batons, tear gas, pepper spray and now tazers.

    With all force comes dangers, dangers to cops, dangers to suspect and dangers to others that might get in the way. I am not promoting the use of force, but it is a necessary evil and the point that needs to be remembered is the Suspect has created the situation for force to be used, normally. And in those cases some unintended injuries may occur.

    It is easy for people to say cops should have done less or should have done more and should not have done what they did and questioning cops actions is OK and keeps a balance in power, however, when a cop is called to assist with an EDP (emotional disturbed person) other means obviously have failed to control the situation. Cops do not need to be doctors, lawyers, counselors, psychologist and experts in all areas of everything. It is unreasonable and only sets the cops up to fail.

    From a cost perspective, every time a cop does not use a tazer it increased the chance for a physical confrontation and that increased the chance of injury to the cops, which increased lost work time, medical retirements, damaged uniforms, takes cops off the street for injury, the chance of losing their gun during a fight and many other dangers. A physical fight for cops is very dangerous and often much more costly than other force.

    If you don’t want to get a tazer used on you don’t resit or fight with cops. I think most would rather a tazer than to be shot with a gun. With that said, checks and balance needs to be in place so cops are not just tazing people for kicks, too fast and without justification. I would think if medical personal are calling for help from cops, then they know what is going to happen when the cops show up, so if you don’t like it, then don’t call them.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “Second, one thing that we learned in Davis, is when the police have better training and leadership, it cuts down on claims and lawsuits. I don’t know how much training costs, I don’t know what grants are available for such training programs, but it seems to me that it might be cheaper to do things right in the first place.”

    Could be. But unfortunately the gov’t seems to see only the bottom line in the short term, so will probably balk at any expenditures. But there are ways that local Mental Health Services and non-profits can step up to the plate and give free trainings in these tough times…

  6. David M. Greenwald

    The other thing I would point out is that the county spends huge amounts combined on interagencies like YONET and the Gang Task Force, there is a SWATT team, why not get grant money to create a mental health response team?

  7. Mr Obvious

    Mr Rabbit,

    I think most of your posts are written while wearing a foil hat. With that said, I am standing and applauding your last post. Law enforcement officers do not have an easy job. The line between being able to physically restrain someone and allowing them to walk away is thin and hazy. Officers are required to make split second decisions that alter peoples lives forever. I think most officers do an excellent job but from time to time mistakes are made.

    More training is always helpful but it is not always available and cannot cover every situation officers will face.

    Again Mr Rabbit, EXCELLENT post.

  8. Roger Rabbit

    Mr. Obvious,

    Your post reminds me of quote: Just because you say Please before you say shut the hell up, does not mean you are being polite.

    I think a lot of your post are written in DA Reisig’s office with his approval and show your right wing good old boy position.

    But, Thanks for the compliment.

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