What the death of a Black teacher after LAPD tasing should teach S.F. about its Police Department

Police weapons are only as good as the hands that use them

A makeshift memorial forms Jan. 14 at a vigil in Los Angeles for Keenan Anderson, who died after being tased by police.

A makeshift memorial forms Jan. 14 at a vigil in Los Angeles for Keenan Anderson, who died after being tased by police.

Keith Birmingham/Orange County Register

Once again, the weapons law enforcement is permitted to use against the public are in the spotlight.

The Los Angeles Police Department is facing national criticism after the Jan. 3 death of Keenan Anderson . The 31-year-old Black teacher went into cardiac arrest and died after being held down and repeatedly tased by police officers.

An edited video released of the incident shows Anderson begging for help and stating: “They’re trying to George Floyd me.” At one point, an officer’s elbow is pushed on Anderson’s neck before he was tased twice. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office is investigating the death and has not yet ruled on a cause.

In San Francisco, officers are not authorized to deploy Tasers, although in recent years the Police Department has pushed for the ability to do so. Instead, the department recently attracted national attention for its desire to deploy a different kind of weapon: lethal remote-controlled robots. In November, the Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a proposal to allow police to use the weapons in limited emergency situations but within days, after a backlash, supervisors walked back their support .

Debates around what armaments authorities are able to use on citizens are always fraught, as they should be. As San Francisco mulls what weapons its police can use, the incident in Los Angeles serves as an important lesson: Devices are only as good as the hand that holds them.

Policing experts told the Los Angeles Times that the way police discharged the Taser on Anderson appeared to be excessive. “It is going to be hard to convince any judge that these officers were using reasonable force,” Ed Obayashi, an attorney and instructor on use-of-force investigations, told the paper. “From the visual aspect, it looks like he is not fighting back; he is not threatening the officers.”

Another factor to consider is racial disparities in policing. A 2020 report by KPCC and LAist showed that over a four-year period, 27% of the 688 people Los Angeles County authorities shot or seriously injured were Black yet Black people make up only 8% of the population. A 2019 Los Angeles Times analysis found that Los Angeles police officers searched Black and Latino people more often than white people during traffic stops even though white people were more likely to possess illegal items. In recent days, two other men died after encounters with Los Angeles police officers; one was Black, and the other was Latino. Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said that he is “deeply concerned” by the recent deaths.

To its credit, the Los Angeles Police Department released footage of the incident leading to Anderson’s death fairly quickly. But when you add everything together, one might conclude that the Taser incident is speaking about bigger issues within the department.

San Francisco police, meanwhile, may not have Tasers or lethal robots at their disposal, but there is evidence that the department is also responsible for racial profiling. A 2016 Department of Justice review of San Francisco police found “ institutionalized bias ” against minorities. Following recommendations from the Justice Department, San Francisco police released figures in March 2022 that showed officers continued to stop, search, and use force on Black people far more often than any other race. Moreover, a UCSF study released last year found that San Francisco County was the worst in the state for police-caused hospitalizations for Black residents.

No case in the country better illustrates the importance of implementation over technology than that of Ronald Greene, a 49-year-old Black man who died in Louisiana police custody in 2019. Initially, police told Greene’s family he died after crashing into a tree following a high-speed chase. But later, state police released a statement admitting a struggle occurred with troopers and Greene died while en route to the hospital.

Despite repeated calls to release body camera footage of the incident, police refused for two years. It was only after the Associated Press obtained and released the footage that the public saw what really happened. That video showed police tasing, punching and choking Greene during the arrest. He can be heard telling officers “I’m your brother! I’m scared! I’m scared!” A trooper is seen with blood on his hands. “I hope this guy ain’t got f—ing AIDS,” a trooper says. In December, a grand jury indicted five law enforcement officers over the incident.

Some criminal justice reform advocates have pushed for the wider implementation of body cameras in a bid to create more accountability and transparency. But as Greene’s case shows, just because there are cameras doesn’t mean authorities will release the footage.

Many technologies departments want to adopt are meant to keep law enforcement safe, which is necessary; just last week, a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy was shot and killed . But mitigating potential harm to police shouldn’t come at the expense of the safety of citizens.

Tools for police are just that: tools. A police department may have guidelines for how its officers can use new devices, but officers might not abide by them . When San Francisco next debates allowing the police to use a new technology, remember: The character of the department is even more important than the technology itself.

Justin Ray is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has published works for the Los Angeles Times and Columbia Journalism Review.