Changes on Police Use of Stun Guns in New Jersey

© Martin Brayley | Dreamstime.com - Police Taser gun
© Martin Brayley | Dreamstime.com – Police Taser gun

TRENTON – After studying incidents in which police have used stun guns in New Jersey and obtaining input from community and law enforcement leaders, Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman today announced changes to the state’s stun gun policy to give officers clearer guidance and enhance their ability to use the devices as a lifesaving alternative to deadly force.

“Stun guns offer a lifesaving alternative when officers must address a rapidly unfolding crisis that otherwise could escalate to the point where deadly force is needed,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “Our new policy revisions, which were developed in consultation with community and law enforcement leaders, recognize that police have a very dangerous job requiring split-second judgments. When used appropriately and in accordance with the expanded training we’re mandating, stun guns can prevent a confrontation from turning deadly. Simply put, stun guns save lives.”

The policy, known as “Attorney General’s Supplemental Policy on Conducted Energy Devices,” is a directive that guides and restricts the use of stun guns by local, county and state law enforcement and dictates the training required for officers using the devices.

“Stun guns have been proven to save lives in New Jersey,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “In light of that track record, it was imperative for us to re-examine our policy to determine whether we could make changes that would save more lives and encourage more police departments to equip their officers with stun guns.”

The prior policy on stun guns prohibited officers from using them against a person resisting arrest unless the officer believed it was “reasonably necessary to prevent the person …from causing death or serious bodily injury to him/herself, an officer or any another person.” (emphasis added) While the revised policy continues to prohibit use of a stun gun as a pain-compliance device against someone offering only passive resistance, it allows use of a stun gun against someone who actively resists arrest “by using or threatening to use physical force or violence” in a manner that the officer “reasonably believes creates a substantial risk of causing bodily injury.” (emphasis added)

The revised policy recognizes that it was unrealistic to expect officers to be able to predict the degree of injury a person might cause during the course of what could be a prolonged encounter. The prior policy had the effect of inhibiting officers from using a stun gun earlier in a confrontation to prevent a situation from escalating to where the officer perceived a risk of death or serious injury, at which point the officer might be compelled to use deadly force.

The language in the revised policy tracks the language on resisting arrest in New Jersey’s Criminal Code, which is familiar to officers and which makes passive resistance a disorderly persons offense, but makes active resistance involving a substantial risk of physical injury – the type of resistance for which use of a stun gun is now authorized – an indictable crime. The language does not require an officer to predict or distinguish whether the injury that is threatened would constitute “serious bodily injury” or simply “bodily injury.”

Additional changes made under the policy revisions include, among others:

  • Allows use of a stun gun against a person armed with an object that could be used as a deadly weapon, if the person refuses to comply with officer commands to drop or surrender the object.
  • Specifies that a stun gun shall not be used for the sole purpose of preventing a person from causing property damage.
  • In the section prohibiting use of a stun gun against a person who is only passively resisting an officer, the revised policy clarifies the device “shall not be fired or discharged against a person, for example, who is attempting instinctively to reduce the leverage of a wristlock, hammerlock, or other pain-compliance hold applied by an officer, or who is bracing or pulling against an officer’s attempt to pull/move him or her.”
  • Requires a new cultural component in the mandatory training for officers who carry stun guns, requiring the training to include “techniques to de-escalate a confrontation with a person from a different culture or background.” The policy also requires training on mental illness.

In developing the new policy revisions, the Division of Criminal Justice conducted a thorough examination of all incidents when stun guns were used by police in New Jersey for the purpose of assessing the existing stun gun policy and considering any necessary changes. There have been more than 60 stun gun deployments by law enforcement officers in New Jersey since November 2012. The examination revealed that, in every instance when a stun gun was fired or discharged, officers complied with the “Attorney General’s Supplemental Policy on Conducted Energy Devices.” Further, in all of these cases, the stun gun discharge either prevented the officer from having to resort to deadly force, or de-escalated a situation that was escalating rapidly to the point where such deadly force would have been warranted. There was only one significant injury among the cases.

Over the past year, the Attorney General’s Office has held meetings with law enforcement leaders, civil rights organizations and community advocates in New Jersey to discuss ways to strengthen police-community relations and enhance public trust and confidence with respect to police use of force. Those meetings were instrumental in the development of the initiatives announced by Attorney General Hoffman last year, including revisions to enhance the Attorney General’s statewide directive on investigating police-involved shootings to ensure fair and transparent investigations, and actions to expand and guide the use of body-worn cameras by police in New Jersey, including the awarding of $2.5 million to 176 police departments to acquire body cameras. The outreach meetings with police and community leaders also addressed the use of stun guns by police and ways in which the existing policy could be improved.

Law enforcement representatives emphasized that the prior policy had the unintended effect of chilling officers from using stun guns in circumstances where deployment could potentially stop a threat from escalating to the point where death or serious injury was likely. Police said the policy restrictions, in some cases, had discouraged police departments from purchasing stun guns to equip their officers.

The policy continues to require that every use of a stun gun be electronically recorded to ensure that these devices are used only in appropriate circumstances. However, the newly revised policy allows body worn cameras to be used in lieu of an internal camera in the stun gun. The change will reduce the purchase price of stun guns and also encourage departments to acquire body worn cameras. Body worn cameras will provide a more complete record of the circumstances surrounding the use of a stun gun.

In 2015, the Attorney General’s Office distributed $389,000 in criminal forfeiture funds as part of a program to incentivize police departments to acquire stun guns. The grants helped fund purchases of 362 stun guns by police departments across New Jersey.

Acting Attorney General Hoffman thanked Assistant Attorney General Ron Susswein for drafting the policy revisions, under the supervision of Director Honig.

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