Criminal justice activists marched today to protest Santa Clara County’s plans to arm jail deputies with Tasers. The assembly outside the Main Jail included former inmates, their friends and family and other reform advocates, who called the Sheriff’s Office proposal dangerous and politically motivated.
During the county’s budget hearings this past spring, Sheriff Laurie Smith asked for $45,000 to launch a pilot program to study the effectiveness of the electronic submission devices. The Board of Supervisors OK’d the request on condition that funds would be withheld until the Sheriff’s Office puts a sound policy in place.
But inmate advocates worry that Tasers could lead to further abuse in the county’s troubled jails. Organizers made a point of holding the rally just days away from the two-year anniversary of the death of Michael Tyree, a mentally ill inmates who was beaten to death by three jailers.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the jails have a good track record,” said 34-year-old Jose Valle, a former inmate who works for social justice nonprofit Silicon Valley De-Bug and helped organize today’s rally. “As great as any of its policies are, they might not be good enough to prevent brutality. It didn’t take a Taser to kill Michael Tyree, it didn’t take a Taser for the many instances of violence by correctional officers. Why should we bring in another tool that will empower officers who aren’t complying with current excessive force policies? That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
About 30 people showed up to the protest at the corner of Hedding and North San Pedro streets, where Valle read a statement from inmates who worry about the potential for abuse if the county goes through with the Taser purchases.
“We are tired prisoners who have been concerned with our safety long before the tragedy of Michael Tyree,” Valle recited.
The statement went on to recount the brutal beating on Aug. 26, 2015, that left Tyree lifeless on the floor of his cell and left inmates all the more fearful for their own safety. It also described countless other beatings, Valle noted.
“This is first hand information physically witnessed by us, the prisoners,” he read. “Until this day, the screams still echo in our eardrums. The pictures and sounds of hearing thump after thump, punch after punch, still echo in our memories. The begging for mercy and the yelling of, ‘I am not resisting.’ What follows are the cover-ups, the justifying of their actions and the false reports. However, Michael Tyree is just a small portion of what we have been exposed to.”
Some protesters questioned the timing of the Taser request, which comes as Smith gears up for a re-election campaign against her former second-in-command, John Hirokawa. One woman held up a sign with a photo of Prince Swayzer III, a 38-year-old man who died in 2008 after San Jose police subdued him with a Taser.
Laurie Valdez, a jail reform advocate whose partner was fatally shot by police in 2014, said money for Tasers would be better spent on mental health treatment for inmates. She said that no amount of rules would prevent the kind of abuse that Tasers could enable.
“No policy is ever going to be good enough when it comes to violence,” Valdez said.
Valle agreed, adding: “There will be no good policy in place until there is a good culture in place that will not include excessive and deadly use of force in the jails.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Reginald Cooks said the agency will take its time to craft a robust set of regulations to govern Taser use and expects to have a policy set in 2018 after various stakeholders have a chance to weigh in. He said the goal is to have a policy that “melds seamlessly” with the agency’s new use-of-force policies, which emphasize de-escalation and using as little force as necessary to manage inmates.
“The policy will not be dictated by any arbitrary timeframe,” Cooks said, “but rather, the policy will be forwarded to the Board of Supervisors when it accomplishes the goals of improving the safety and security of our facilities.”
Since the state began emptying its prisons by transferring inmates to county jails five years ago as part of sweeping reforms, local law enforcement agencies have had to deal with more sophisticated and violent felons, sheriff’s officials said. On top of that, Cooks said, reforms brought in the wake of Tyree’s death forced the jail to bump some inmates to a lower security classification to give them more out-of-cell time.
“On a regular basis, approximately 45 of the highest security level inmates can be interacting together,” Cooks said. “This places staff and inmates at an increase risk of serious injury.”
Last year, the Sheriff’s Office said it reported 528 assaults in the jails, 33 of which involved attacks by inmates on staff. In the budget hearings, Smith suggested that those could have been prevented if her jail deputies were armed with Tasers.
The Correctional Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), the local jail deputy union, has long lobbied for adding Tasers to the arsenal to protect staff. In a letter to county supervisors, however, CPOA President Lt. Amy Le said the stun guns would protect inmates as well.
“Often the difference of a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death or lifetime disability for vulnerable inmates,” Le wrote in the Mary 16 letter. “We need more effective tools to protect inmates.”
Though Sheriff Smith primarily emphasized Taser use in the jails in the budget discussions, another big push for buying them came from the county’s Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the union that represents the patrol deputies.
Sheriff Smith’s proposal drew immediate backlash from community groups that have been monitoring the jail after Tyree’s murder. In a letter to the county, Asian Law Alliance Director Richard Konda cautioned about the effect Tasers could have on inmates who are mentally and physically ill. According to a 2015 study, nearly half the inmates at the county’s two jails have been diagnosed with a mental illness and about 650 take psychotropic drugs every day.
“We believe any rush to bring Tasers to our jails without thorough research should be avoided,” Konda wrote in a letter also signed by former deputy public defender Aram James. “Not only are individuals with mental health concerns and prescription drug users more vulnerable to the lethal risk of Tasers, but inmates with heart issues and other physical limitations are equally vulnerable.”
Stun guns were invented in the 1970s, but saw resurgence in the early 2000s as Taser International—which has since changed its name to Axon Enterprise—aggressively marketed its more technologically advanced iteration of the tool to law enforcement. Though pitched as a non-lethal alternative instrument, a Reuters investigation found that, since 2000, more than 1,000 people have died after police used stun guns on them.
“We’ve developed a pretty good relationship with the sheriff’s department, with Laurie Smith,” Valle said. “That’s why I don’t understand this effort to purchase Tasers, which weren’t brought up once in any of the hundreds of reform policy recommendations after Tyree’s death. So I ask, ‘Why now? Why all of a sudden? How will this affect the community’s trust in our jails when it was already shaken?’”
This article has been updated.