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Bergen County Police get 20 stun guns: Good move?

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

SPECIAL REPORT: Two dozen Bergen County Police officers have been trained to use 20 Tasers that the agency bought as alternatives to deadly force, a spokesman for County Executive Kathleen Donovan announced today.

In addition for use by its SWAT team, county police “will be offering this as a service to other municipalities in situations where this might be an alternative to deadly force,” said the spokesman, John Gil.

Local officers would have to undergo the same training, which includes instruction on recognizing mental illness and dealing with emotionally disturbed people.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has strict, comprehensive guidelines governing the use of the “conductive energy devices” considered the strictest in the nation ( see below ).

For instance, an officer can use a stun gun only if he or she believes it’s necessary to:

  • prevent someone from causing bodily injury to anyone involved, including himself/herself, the officer or someone else;
  • prevent someone suspected of an assault or homicide from fleeing;
  • get someone into custody who won’t submit even after repeated commands.

There is also an important distinction for citizens to consider: Under the Attorney General’s regulations, police AREN’T required to use a stun gun first when deadly force is required to stop an attacker.

They have guns for that.

Most CEDs, as they are known, fire two darts that attach to the target and generate 50,000 volts in 5-second blasts. In many people, this overwhelm the body’s motor system, creating spasms or knocking them to the ground.

Certain other people, however, might become even more agitated if already enraged.

Police in New Jersey have their choice of two Taser models, which record various data every time a shot is fired, allowing superiors to check their use.

They also still have several questions about the devices.

“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.”

At the same time, New Milford Police Chief Frank Papapietro said the devices could be a boon to law enforcement.

“Bergen County is highly populated and the possibility of innocent victims being caught in a cross-fire is a real scenario,” he told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “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. But I seriously doubt it will be a factor.”

“The criteria of ‘threat of deadly force or serious bodily injury’ is a joke,” one out-of-state officer wrote. “If that threat is there, it’s bullet time — not probes and wires time.”

Retired NYPD Officer Joe Sanchez agreed.

“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.”

New Jersey was the last state to approve use of the less-than-lethal weapons.

North Dakota, Wyoming and other politically conservative states for years have been using them. 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. The 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.”

Anne Milgram, who was New Jersey’s attorney general in 2009, briefly let police in the state use the guns only on armed, emotionally disturbed people. But that brought an outcry from police chiefs and others who wondered how many officers could be killed having to make a split-second judgment call.

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 that New Jersey’s guidelines prohibit police from using.

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 that person to comply. It’s commonly known as “dry tasing” or “contact tasing.”

Amnesty International has called Tasers “torture guns.” It cites medical studies that show people who are agitated or full of drugs are more susceptible 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.”

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.

SOME BACKGROUND:

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.[17]

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.”

Under THE NJ ATTORNEY GENERAL’S GUIDELINES for stun-gun use :

  • An officer must receive written permission from his or her chief and qualify using the weapon three times a year;
  • Stun guns can be fired only when an officer believes such force is reasonably necessary to prevent serious injury or death, or to prevent the flight of someone who caused serious injury or death to someone else;
  • An officer may not shock a person a second time unless the person still poses the same threat;
  • An officer may not shock a person who is handcuffed or restrained unless the person poses an immediate threat of serious injury or death;
  • An officer may not use a stun gun’s drive-stun mode, in which the weapon is directly pressed against a person, unless the person poses an immediate threat of serious injury or death;
  • A stun gun can not be used against someone who is passively resisting an officer’s commands;
  • A stun gun can not be used or threatened to be used as punishment or retaliation for a past action;
  • A stun gun can not be used against someone driving a vehicle;
  • Police cannot use more than one stun gun on a person at the same time;
  • When possible, an officer should warn a person that a stun gun is about to be used;
  • An officer can not not remove the stun gun from its holster unless the situation likely calls for its use;
  • An officer should not fire a stun gun when it could strike an innocent bystander — unless it is necessary to protect the bystander from serious injury or death;
  • Whenever possible, officers should use stun guns only when another officer is present who is capable of shooting the attacker to prevent serious injury or death;
  • Stun guns can not be used in an area where there are flammable gases or liquids that could ignite from a spark or near a body of water into which the target could fall;
  • Officers should “use particular care” when considering the use of a stun gun on an elderly person, child, or anyone with a known medical condition, such as a pregnant woman;
  • Anyone hit by an officer’s stun gun must be taken to a medical facility for examination;
  • Every time a stun gun is used, that officer’s superior must investigate and report on the incident to the county prosecutor’s office.

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