Police in N.J. can finally use Tasers — or can they?
EDITORIAL: State Attorney General Paula Dow has finally given New Jersey police the authority to use Tasers as a “realistic” alternative to deadly force – provided the weapons have digital cameras. But, realistically: How often can officers use them?
Dow alerted county prosecutors on Friday that she has approved two models from Taser: the X26 and the X2. The computerized non-lethal weapons record various data every time a shot is fired, allowing superiors to check their use.
“If new devices become available in the future that meet the criteria, they can be submitted for testing and possible addition to the authorized list,” she wrote.
The state now joins all 49 others in arming its law enforcement officers with “conducted energy devices.”
But how often can police actually use them justifiably?
“The only non-deadly force situation we can use them in is if a person is self-injurious, or when a person is armed but danger is not yet ‘imminent,’ which basically doesn’t exist,” one officer told CLIFFVIEW PILOT. “In most other states, stun guns can be used to combat resistance from unarmed persons or in response to a non-compliant subject.
“Any shooting will now be questioned even more, no matter how justified.”
Fairview Detective Capt. Martin Kahn agreed.
“With all the equipment that officers need to carry today, I think it’s just too much for an officer to think about in a split second when the situation arises,” the 17-year veteran told CLIFFVIEW PILOT.
If Dow clearly defines the use of a Taser as equivalent to that of pepper spray, and not on par with a firearm or projectile, Dow said, then “towns, departments and officers will be more inclined to use them because the liability will be less.”
“Bergen County is highly populated and the possibility of innocent victims being caught in a crossfire is a real scenario,” New Milford Police Chief Frank Papapietro countered. “Having a less than lethal option gives officers a wider parameter with regard to life and death decision making.
“New Jersey law enforcement is a highly professional group and I have faith and confidence that they will take this responsibility very seriously. Abuses will be dealt with harshly, as they are with unauthorized firearms use,” Papapietro told CLIFFVIEW PILOT. “But I seriously doubt it will be a factor.
“In short, it’s an important step forward and I applaud the Attorney General for this decision.”
Retired NYPD cop Joe Sanchez had a slightly different take. As usual, he pulled no punches:
“Good to have as a backup to control an Emotionally Disturbed Person [EDP] who does not have a gun, knife, or other weapon, and is not on top of you trying to remove your weapon,” Sanchez told CLIFFVIEW PILOT. “If so, shoot his ass, and live to tell about it.”
Dow said: “The new policy continues to restrict use of stun guns, for the most part, to situations where an officer seeks to prevent a suspect from causing death or serious bodily injury to an officer, to another person, or to himself or herself. Law enforcement officers may not use them against a person who is only offering passive resistance to commands.
“At the same time, the new policy eliminates restrictions in the prior policy that, as a practical matter, would frequently have prevented officers from using stun guns as an alternative to deadly force during a swiftly unfolding crisis. The prior policy was so restrictive that, in some instances, it prohibited the use of a stun gun in situations where an officer could use lethal force.”
The Attorney General also said she has “worked with academy directors and other experts to develop and obtain approval from the Police Training Commission for a training course. All officers who will carry the devices must complete the course, which includes instruction on recognizing mental illness and dealing with emotionally disturbed persons.”
New Jersey police have virtually begged for the weapons for years as an alternative in dangerous situations. Although they do their jobs without complaint, no officer wants to shoot a mad, deranged or unreasonable person, no matter the circumstance.
In every other state, officers have faced similar situations, only to reach for a non-lethal weapon, eliminate the threat and keep the situation from turning to tragedy.
North Dakota, Wyoming and other politically conservative states for years have been using the handheld weapons, which deliver 50,000 volts of electricity, temporarily paralyzing the target. The city of New York, as well as some of its counterparts in Florida and California, have long supplied each and every street officer with one.
All New Jersey officers have had are batons and pepper spray. Next step: bullets.
In fact, state authorities in 2000 dictated that ANY projectile from a firearm was considered deadly force, “including less lethal means such as bean bag ammunition or rubber pellets.”
Pretty much meant the same situation that required a handgun.
Anne Milgram, the state’s top cop in 2009, let police in the state use the guns only on armed, emotionally disturbed people. But that was wrong on so many counts, prompting enough reasoned opposition from police chiefs for her to revise the rules.
Now, the criteria is: a threat of death or serious injury to the officer or anyone nearby. More restrictive than police had hoped for.
Some officers are sticking to their guns — literally.
“I think the intentions are good, but in practice it’s a nightmare,” Waldwick Police Chief Mark Messner said.
“I am not a big personal fan and our detectives will not carry [them],” Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said, “but I am grateful that [Dow] has allowed this and set standards.”
Even officers from out of state questioned the move.
“Looks like they are telling them to bring a taser to a knife fight,” said Erik Josephson, a police officer in North Providence, R.I. “Not good. Too restrictive.”
“The criteria of ‘threat of deadly force or serious bodily injury’ is a joke,” Wichita Falls (Kan.) Police Officer Kyle Anderson added. “If that threat is there, it’s bullet time — not probes and wires time.”
Less-lethal devices emerged in the 1970s as a recourse to unavoidable police shootings. As with anything involving peace officers trying to do their jobs, it suffered a backlash from those who said the weapons could be abused.
The devices cause “neuromuscular incapacitation,” with involuntary muscle contractions, according to Taser International. Once the jolt subsides and their muscular control returns, most subjects will comply — just so they don’t get zapped again.
It’s NOT about pain — although there is a Drive Stun mode for extreme circumstances, according to Taser International. In that case, the officer presses the device against the subject’s body, with the jolt sustained for as long as period as is needed to get someone to comply. It’s commonly known as “dry tasing”, “contact tasing” — and it is not used often. Police ordinarily opt for the non-contact firing.
More than 75,000 lives have been saved and officer injuries have dropped by 76% since police nationwide began using Tasers, the Police Executive Research Forum announced in a 2009 study.
To make it easier for agencies to head off opponents, Taser invented “Axon,” the video system that gives authorities a view of what an officer is pointing at when an incident occurs.
Interestingly, Taser contends, the video camera “has an effect on the conduct of suspects and officers alike.”
“From a liability standpoint, the video you capture often saves [police] against claims down the road,” the manufacturer says.
The idea is to aim at the stomach or lower body. In those instances where someone was accidentally struck in the head, detractors raised the proverbial hue and cry.
Amnesty International, for instance, has called Tasers “torture guns.” It cites medical studies that show people who are agitated or full of drugs are more succeptible to heart failure — which could be triggered by a jolt.
The use of stun guns also “raises a number of concerns for the protection of human rights,” the human rights group wrote. “Portable and easy to use, with the capacity to inflict severe pain at the push of a button … electro-shock weapons are particularly open to abuse by unscrupulous officials.”
On the flip side, Amnesty said some form of less-lethal weaponry could “decrease the risk of death or injury inherent in the use of firearms or other impact weapons such as batons,” without offering any suggestions.
The Potomac Institute, a not-for-profit public policy research institute, did its own study and found that proper oversight is the key.
“We believe that the establishment of industry-driven, government-endorsed standards will contribute significantly to better understanding of this technology,” the report said.
The video cameras would seem to answer that concern.
It took Jack Cover, a NASA researcher, five years to develop the Taser he unveiled in 1974, naming it after his childhood hero, Tom Swift (“Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle”).
It originally used gunpowder as its propellant, which led the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to classify it as a firearm in 1976.
In 1991, a Taser supplied by Tasertron to the Los Angeles Police Department failed to subdue Rodney King. Its lack of effectiveness was blamed on a faulty battery.
Taser International CEO Patrick Smith said the catalyst for developing the device was the shooting deaths of two friends from high school by a “guy with a legally licensed gun who lost his temper.”
In 1993, Smith and his brother worked with Cover to develop a safer “non-firearm TASER electronic control device.” The ATF did not brand it a firearm, and the company in 1999 introduced an “ergonomically handgun-shaped device called the ADVANCED TASER M-series systems,” which used “neuromuscular incapacitation (NMI) technology.”
The x26 arrived in May 2003, using “Shaped Pulse Technology.”