Attorney General Announces New Policy On Police Use Of Stun Guns

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TRENTON – Attorney General Paula T. Dow and Criminal Justice Director Stephen J. Taylor  announced a revised policy governing the use of stun guns by law enforcement officers in New Jersey on Thursday, which was developed in consultation with the law enforcement community.

The new policy replaces a policy issued by the Attorney General’s Office last year, under the prior administration.  Law enforcement professionals had expressed concern that the prior policy made it impractical to use stun guns because that policy was too restrictive regarding the number of officers who could carry stun guns and the circumstances in which they could be used.

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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.  However, 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.

“Law enforcement officers have a very tough job, and we want to give them every tool that can assist them in their work of protecting lives,” said Dow. “In consultation with the law enforcement community, we have developed a fair and balanced policy on stun guns that will provide officers with a practical alternative to using deadly force in appropriate situations.”

“There was a consensus among law enforcement professionals that the stun gun policy adopted by the prior administration was too restrictive, both in terms of the number of officers who could carry the devices and the limits imposed on their use in a rapidly developing use of force situation,” said Taylor. “This new policy provides responsible and realistic parameters within which police can use stun guns.”

“These revisions take the handcuffs off law enforcement to use stun guns for what they were designed to do: protect the people of New Jersey,” said Major Karl Kleeberg of the New Jersey State Police.  “The video and data recording capabilities of these devices ensure that officers will be backed up legally for the justifiable use of stun guns,” Kleeberg added.

“The New Jersey law enforcement community and the public will be well served by this revised policy,” said Cranford Police Chief Eric Mason, President of the NJ State Association of Chiefs of Police. “It removes the unworkable and overly restrictive mandates from the original policy. As a result, it provides police officers with a much needed tool and the necessary guidelines for its use. Attorney General Dow’s willingness to get constructive input from law enforcement on this issue has resulted in better public policy, and we believe better policing.”

The prior policy permitted the use of a stun gun only if the officer made a judgment that the targeted person was “mentally ill” or “temporarily deranged.”  The officer also needed authorization from an on-scene supervisor.  The new policy does not require officers to make a clinical diagnosis that a person is emotionally disturbed and does not require the approval of a supervisor before a stun gun is used.

The new policy eliminates arbitrary limits that had been placed on the number, rank, and duty assignment of officers who could carry and use stun guns. Outside of SWAT teams, police forces in the largest cities could equip only four officers with stun guns under the prior policy, and those officers had to be of a supervisory rank.  Cities with under 25,000 residents could equip only one additional officer.  The new policy allows a department’s chief executive to determine which officers may carry stun guns, considering their experience and demonstrated judgment.

The policy requires the use of stun guns approved by the Attorney General that will make a date- and time-stamped digital video recording of every instance when the device is discharged. Such recordings must be secured by a superior officer as part of a prompt and thorough investigation of every discharge of a stun gun.  The findings of those investigations must be reviewed by the county prosecutor and forwarded to the Division of Criminal Justice for review.

The policy requires that all officers who carry stun guns receive a course of training on stun guns approved by the Police Training Commission and re-qualify every six months.  The course will include training on how to recognize mental illness and deal with an emotionally disturbed person.

The policy applies to “conducted energy devices,” defined as any device approved by the Attorney General that fires electrode darts attached by wires to the main body of the device, which is held by the officer.  The darts transmit an electrical charge or current to temporarily disable a person.  The charge stuns and temporarily incapacitates the person by causing involuntary muscle contractions.

Under the prior policy, a stun gun could be used only if the suspect were “isolated and contained.”  That meant that a stun gun could not be used if there were a hostage or other innocent person nearby. The new policy provides that an officer must consider whether there is a substantial risk that an innocent person might inadvertently be struck by the electrode darts.  An officer should fire a stun gun, despite such risk, only when necessary to protect the nearby innocent person from attack.  The new policy recognizes that there are instances when firing a stun gun would be the safest alternative for the innocent person.

The prior policy contemplated that stun guns would be used, for the most part, only if a SWAT team were deployed.  However, the law enforcement community expressed concern that the prior policy failed to recognize that officers who are first on the scene of a rapidly developing use of force situation may need to act quickly with a stun gun, before other units arrive, in order to resolve a confrontation before it escalates to the point where deadly force is required.

The new policy generally brings the rules for stun guns into line with the policy adopted in March 2008 for less lethal ammunition.  That policy established a new level of force called “enhanced mechanical force” immediately under deadly force.

Under the Attorney General’s Use of Force Policy, deadly force may only be used when an officer reasonably believes such force is immediately necessary to protect an officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.  The rules for less lethal ammunition, and now stun guns, do not require that the threat of death or serious bodily injury be imminent or immediate.

The prior policy allowed for use of a stun gun only against a suspect who was armed with a deadly weapon.  The new policy permits use of a stun gun against a person who is posing a risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person by, for example, choking the person, kicking the person’s head, or holding the person and threatening to strangle him or her.

The new policy allows use of a stun gun in several other circumstances where it was prohibited under the prior policy.  The new policy allows an officer to use a stun gun, if needed, to prevent the escape of a suspect believed to have caused or attempted to cause the death or serious bodily injury of another.

The prior policy absolutely prohibited use of a stun gun against a handcuffed subject as well as use of a stun gun in “drive stun mode,” meaning when the device is placed directly against the subject instead of being fired from a distance.  The new policy allows for those two uses of a stun gun in circumstances where deadly force would be permitted or where there is an imminent threat that the subject will kill or cause serious bodily injury to himself or herself.  The new policy allows a stun gun to be used against a handcuffed suspect only if other types of physical or mechanical force are not available, would not be effective, or would be too dangerous for the officer to attempt to use.

The new policy for stun guns recognizes that while they are designed and intended to be used as less lethal weapons, they can cause serious injury or death.  The policy requires officers to use particular care when using them against a person who may be vulnerable due to age or medical condition.

The policy prohibits use of a stun gun against the operator of a motor vehicle. It also prohibits the firing of two or more stun guns at a person at the same time.  It directs that a stun gun shall not be used against a person who is in a precarious, elevated position, unless reasonable efforts have been made to guard against a fall-related injury. It further directs that a stun gun shall not be used close to a body of water or flammable materials.

The policy imposes limits on when an officer may unholster and display a stun gun, including “spark displays,” in which an arc of electricity is emitted from the device as a demonstration to discourage resistance.  These restrictions are patterned closely after the current standard used to justify unholstering and exhibiting a firearm.

The policy makes clear that there is no requirement that an officer exhaust the option of using a stun gun before using lethal ammunition in any circumstance where deadly force would be justified and authorized under the Attorney General’s Use of Force Policy.


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