USA – After years of delays, stun guns are in the hands of Burlington County police officers (2012-12-08)

Published on December 8 2012 by admin

[[SUMMARY / COMMENTS: In a long article, we learn that New Jersey police are “ecstatic”: they are about to get tasers, new Jersey being, according to this article, the last state to approve their use. Interesting to diuscover that earlier they were permitted to be used only on mentally disturbed people, and the weapons were restricted to four per department. But one police chief comments: “I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon right away. There’s too much going on nationally, with bad things happening to people with the Tasers.” A taser trainer points out that there have been about a dozen cases nationwide in which police thought they were going for a stun gun, but wound up pulling out a real one and firing, so training includes “muscle memory”.]], by Matt Chiappardi

The situation: A mentally unstable man is wielding a baseball bat and threatening to smash open the head of anyone who gets in his way.

Just a few months ago, the police’s only options in this realistic but hypothetical scenario were to shoot the man if he made any moves with the deadly weapon, or get in close and try to disarm him physically or with a nightstick.

Either option could spell serious injury for either the officer or the suspect, or the results could be fatal when firing a gun.

Now, authorities in New Jersey have a new option.

After five years of debate and policy revisions, New Jersey has effectively become the last state in the country to allow so-called stun guns, or Tasers, into the law enforcement arsenal. A handful of the weapons are now on the streets in Burlington County, with more to be deployed in the coming weeks.

Training is being handled by county prosecutors’ offices. Burlington County held one of several training sessions last week. Many of the officers who attended say they are excited to finally have a tool they’ve wanted for a long time.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” said Sgt. Victor Bialous of the Westampton Police Department. “There are a lot of scenarios where a Taser can be deployed where no one needs to get shot. If you can avoid having to deploy deadly force on someone, that’s fantastic.”

Westampton is joining departments in Delran, Evesham, Maple Shade, New Hanover and Willingboro in purchasing the devices and having officers certified to use them.

Other departments, including Bordentown City, Burlington Township, Florence, Lumberton, Medford, Riverside and Riverton, have expressed interest, but have concerns about the price or potential liability issues the devices may present.

“We’re still waiting awhile,” Florence Police Chief Al Scully said. “I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon right away. There’s too much going on nationally, with bad things happening to people with the Tasers.”

Scully’s concerns are shared by organizations such as Amnesty International, which says 300 people have died in the United States in the last decade as a result of stun guns.

Some of those deaths have been high-profile, including people who were in law enforcement custody and in several situations in which authorities ruled that police abused the tools.

So far, there have been relatively few independent studies on stun guns, but research suggests that deaths related to their use are very rare when compared with other police encounters, and that officer and suspect injuries have been dramatically reduced.

“They are a viable tool,” Scully said. “I really understand that, but I want to make sure I’m comfortable with them.”

On Tuesday, officers from several departments underwent field training with the devices at the Burlington County Emergency Services Training Center in Westampton.

There, they had to learn how to fire the stun gun’s retractable electrodes, which have a range of up to 21 feet and are designed to temporarily incapacitate a target by disrupting muscle function.

The devices are shaped like handguns, but are lighter and don’t have any recoil, the kickback a gun gives when fired.

Mastering it took a few minutes to get used to, but many officers said it turned out to be easier to operate than a handgun.

More to it than shooting

But just learning how to shoot it was not enough, said trainer Sgt. Corey Jones of the Mount Laurel Police Department.

“The devices are holstered on the officer’s non-gun side,” Jones said. “So you’re trying to build a muscle memory where, when you need the Taser, you reach for that and nothing else.”

Jones said there have been about a dozen cases nationwide in which police thought they were going for a stun gun, but wound up pulling out a real one and firing. The reverse can also have dire consequences if a gun is needed and all an officer is left with is a plastic electric device.

Most departments are using stun guns that are bright yellow, to further help officers and the public differentiate between the weapons.

Each weapon has an integrated camera that records audio and video every time it is used, and officers are trained to make sure their hands don’t cover the lens when they pull them out.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the training is for the officers to grow accustomed to the narrow policy in place for their use, said trainer Detective Mike Reagan of the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office.

The Attorney General’s Office’s guidelines adopted in 2010 are considered to be among the most stringent in the nation.

“The biggest adjustment is going to be adapting to the new policy,” Reagan said. “It’s very specific in its application.”

The stun guns are permitted only when people are in danger of causing serious bodily injury to an officer, another person or themselves, according to guidelines.

They can never be used on a person passively disobeying an officer’s command.

In some cases when a stun gun may be necessary, location can rule it out. They should be avoided when near a body of water, when a person is operating a vehicle, when a person is in danger of falling a great distance, or when near flammable gases or liquids.

The policy also forbids using or threatening to use the stun gun as a punishment or in retaliation for any past action.

Several officers hope officials will consider broadening those guidelines in the future.

“I would think that once they see the Tasers being used, the restrictions will come down,” Bialous said. “I’m hoping they will drop down to situations where we have to use mechanical force.”

Police officers in New Jersey are permitted to use mechanical force, in which they can use a law enforcement tool such as a baton but not a stun gun, in situations when a person is physically resisting an officer, but not creating an immediate threat of bodily injury.

Someone suspected of a minor crime, such as trespassing, could not be stunned with a Taser. Police, however, will be allowed to use the device on suspects who have just committed a violent offense or who police believe will commit violence while attempting to escape capture.

A less lethal option

One important distinction trainers pointed out is that the stun gun is not meant to be an alternative to the handgun.

“This is just another tool, not a replacement for a firearm,” Reagan said. “It simply gives us a less lethal option. They are not intended to cloud the officer’s judgment on the use of deadly force.”

Instead, the devices are seen as another force option, less lethal than a gun, but safer than a nightstick or baton.

One of the reasons police have been asking for stun guns for years was to bridge what they saw as a large gap in how they are legally permitted to use force.

Law enforcement practice typically defines use of force on a continuum that gradually escalates depending on the situation.

On the low end is an officer’s physical presence, which can graduate to physical contact and then physical force, such as hand-to-hand combat.

Next is mechanical force, which is the use of a tool such as pepper spray or a baton, but, from there, leaps directly to deadly force.

Police are also permitted to use other less lethal weapons such as rubber bullets and beanbag projectiles, but only in cases in which deadly force would also have been justified.

A stun gun gives officers something between mechanical and deadly force in order to subdue people who pose a threat, but are not immediately able to employ deadly force of their own.

The examples many officers point to are situations in which people are holding a knife or similar weapon and threatening harm to themselves or others.

“Prior to the Taser, you would immediately have to go to deadly force or the threat of deadly force,” Bialous said. “You’d have to draw your weapon, order him to drop (his weapon), and talk him out of it. If he made any approach, you’d have to use deadly force.”

Sgt. Jim Mitchell of the Delran Police Department agreed.

“You had nothing between mechanical force and deadly force,” Mitchell said. “There are plenty of situations where it would have been great to have a Taser, but we didn’t have the option.”

Mitchell said he has been involved in several such scenarios over the years, including one in 2011 in which a man was threatening to kill people with glass shards he’d gotten by breaking a window.

Police brought him under control by piling on top of him, and an officer broke his arm in the process, he said.

A stun gun in that situation could have ended the standoff more quickly and without any injuries to the parties involved, he said.

That’s not to say the stun gun doesn’t hurt.

Each officer trained had to be shocked with the weapon in drive-stun mode, which involves the stun gun and the electric arc it produces being pressed directly against the skin.

“It felt like getting hit by a baseball bat,” Mitchell said. “I thought I was going to have a huge bruise, but when I rolled up my sleeve later, nothing.”

The drive-stun mode is prohibited under the guidelines, except in cases in which deadly force is also justified.

Just getting the stun guns into the hands of New Jersey police has been a drawn-out process.

They were banned outright in the state in 1989, until former Gov. Richard Codey signed a law in 2006 loosening the restrictions.

At first, they were permitted to be used only on mentally disturbed people, and the weapons were restricted to four per department.

The rules were finalized in 2010, lifting the quantity restrictions and broadening the use guidelines.

After a five-year wait, officials approved two models of stun gun in late 2011, the X-2 and X-26 from Taser International of Arizona, which is the leading producer of stun guns and whose brand name has entered the popular lexicon as a catch-all term for the devices.

When several departments balked at Taser’s more-than-$2,000 price, the state in October approved a cheaper model from Florida-based Karbon Arms that sells for about $600.

Several Burlington County departments have said they may consider going for the less expensive models in 2013. Having a stun gun as a civilian is still a fourth-degree crime in New Jersey, punishable by up to 18 months in prison.

The Prosecutor’s Office is planning to hold four more training sessions next year, but the dates have not been scheduled.

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