San Diego County sheriff’s sergeant got plaque for deploying Taser 25 times
After Sgt. Shawn Silva recorded his 25th shooting of an electronic stun gun, his friends and co-workers in the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department presented him with a custom-made plaque featuring a replica Taser and tally marks denoting each incident.
Dated in 2012, the informal commemoration recognized this mid-career milestone with a Sheriff’s Department patch in the upper left corner and the signatures of 10 colleagues on its frame.
It was displayed in Silva’s office for years, visible to deputies as well as to lieutenants and captains visiting Silva’s office. It likely would have been perceived as a symbol of achievement. Someone snapped a photo of it in 2019.
The plaque is not an official department commendation, said Lt. Amber Baggs, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department. The award has been removed from Silva’s office, she said in an email last week; she did not say when it was removed.
“The Sheriff’s Department is disappointed that a supervisor [in] our department had an office display that could be interpreted as glorifying the tasing of individuals,” she wrote.
“This display was not created by the Sheriff’s Department and we do not defend or support this type of display … Any such display that would erode the public trust or create division between law enforcement and the public will not be tolerated.”
Silva, who is now assigned to the Poway substation, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the plaque.
The San Diego Union-Tribune obtained a photograph of the plaque from someone who said they were bothered by what it signifies but who did not want to be publicly identified.
Law enforcement experts and civilian oversight professionals said the award is deeply offensive.
“If this plaque is commemorating uses of force, even if the uses of force were justified, it is definitely concerning,” said Paul Parker, executive officer of the citizens’ review board that investigates misconduct in the county Sheriff’s and Probation departments.
“The commemoration of uses of force, especially with the creation of a plaque displayed in the workplace and signed by fellow deputies leads to many questions, not the least of which is whether the celebratory recognition of uses of force is a systemic issue within the San Diego Sheriff’s Department,” Parker said.
Seth Stoughton is a law professor at the University of South Carolina who spent five years as an officer with the Tallahassee Police Department in Florida. He said a plaque like the one Silva displayed in his workplace was “wildly inappropriate.”
“It explicitly communicates that an officer’s use of force is something to be celebrated rather than avoided to the extent it is possible to do so. That’s exactly the wrong message and exactly the wrong cultural norm for policing,” said Stoughton, who testified for prosecutors this spring in the criminal case against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd.
Members of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department are not alone in commemorating shootings or other uses of force by their law enforcement colleagues.
Last September, the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman reported that officials in the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office were rewarding deputies with steakhouse gift cards after what were deemed “good uses of force.”
Two Williamson County deputies were given gift cards after using a stun gun on a 40-year-old Black man four times as he gasped for air and alerted them that he had a heart condition and could not breathe, the newspaper reported. The man later died.
Last week, the police chief in Phoenix was suspended and four other officers were removed from their positions or placed on administrative leave after an outside report criticized the department’s handling of demonstrators, the Associated Press reported.
Among other things, officers were found to have traded commemorative coins celebrating those who had shot people protesting police brutality in their groins with pepper balls.
Margo Frasier is a former sheriff of Travis County, Texas, which includes the capital city of Austin and is just south of Williamson County. Frasier, who served as elected sheriff between 1997 and 2004, now works as a criminal-justice consultant and is a board member of the National Assn. of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
She said commemorations like those in Williamson County, Phoenix and San Diego County happen frequently for a variety of things, but it is difficult to say how pervasive the practice is nationwide.
“The [cases] that are most concerning are the ones related to use of force and harassment of marginalized groups,” Frasier said. “While the awarding of plaques and coins are not all that common, the ‘atta boys’ and informal recognition are detrimental to the moral compass.”
The use of a stun gun, which is more commonly known by the brand name Taser, is relatively uncommon, according to San Diego Sheriff’s Department annual use of force reports.
Between 2015 and 2020, deputies generally deployed that form of nonlethal force between 164 and 226 times a year, with 2019 and 2020 recording 164 and 166 cases, respectively, records show.
Although the plaque credits Silva for using the electronic stun gun 25 times in his first five years as a sheriff’s deputy, Baggs said a review of department records showed he had a total of 14 uses between 2009 and 2012, and one in 2017.
The department said the discrepancy between the 15 recorded Taser incidents and the 25 signified on the plaque presented to Silva is likely due to a change in reporting procedures implemented in 2011. Baggs said a more thorough review of Silva’s stun-gun deployments was being undertaken but results were not yet available.
“We’re hoping he’ll be able to locate the remainder of the cases, if they exist,” she said.
Based on department records, Silva used his Taser at least 10 times between 2009 and 2011 — an average of once every three and a half months — which is notably more often than other deputies.
“These incidents were all reviewed and found to be within policy and the law,” Baggs wrote.
The electronic guns are among the least common use-of-force incidents reported by the department.
In 2020, for example, the department cited 3,454 cases in which deputies placed their hands on a suspect, pointed a weapon at someone or relied on another tactic to control a person, the annual report said.
That was a significant decline from the 3,978 use-of-force reports in 2019.
“The Sheriff’s Department works hard to instill trust in our communities,” Baggs said. “We have trained and established use-of-force policies that stress de-escalation and safely taking individuals into custody.”
Baggs said the department does not support or encourage any level of force beyond what is appropriate and necessary to effect an arrest or prevent an escape.
Every incident is reviewed after the fact by three levels of supervisors, and if any issues are identified the cases are sent to an internal review board for additional study and oversight, she said.
“This board reviews incidents with an eye toward training deficiencies, tactics, adherence to policy and procedures, and the law,” Baggs said. “When deficiencies are noted that were not initially identified by an area command, they are referred for appropriate action.”
The department did not say whether Silva had been disciplined for displaying the plaque. A San Diego County spokesman said Silva was hired as a deputy sheriff in January 2008 and now receives an annual salary of just over $143,000.
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