Stun Guns Embraced Slowly by New Jersey Police

By KIBRET MARKOS, The Record | December 16, 2014

Police departments in New Jersey have issued more than 500 stun guns to officers in the last two years, as the least stun-gun-friendly state in the country slowly embraces the device.

The Record reports that so far, 42 of New Jersey’s 550 departments have the weapons, and many more departments have lined up to get them.

Seven of Bergen County’s 72 police departments have issued stun guns in the past year, and they have been used in seven incidents, officials said.

In June, Teaneck police used a stun gun to subdue an emotionally disturbed man, officials said. Englewood police pulled over a driver this year and used a stun gun on him when he refused to get out of his car. In another Englewood incident, officers used a stun gun on a man inside a police station who became combative. Details of the other stun-gun incidents by police in Bergen County were unavailable.

Eighteen departments in the county have trained officers on how to use the guns, but have not yet issued them.

Stun guns – better known as Tasers, named after their manufacturer, Taser International – shoot two darts connected to wires. Once the darts hit their target, they release a high-voltage electric current that temporarily freezes communication between a person’s brain and muscles, causing a few seconds of paralysis.

Police officers and stun-gun advocates have argued that the devices come in handy in situations where it would be too risky to subdue a violent suspect with a baton or pepper spray, yet the suspect may not pose a threat serious enough to use a firearm.

Tasers have been used 2.28 million times in the United States since the devices were introduced in 1998 and have been issued to officers in every major city except Boston and San Francisco, said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International.

In New Jersey, stun guns have been used rarely, said Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. Police officers have used them 28 times, he said. There have been no incidents in Passaic County, and officers in Camden County have used stun guns 14 times, he said.

The debate over the use of stun guns has centered on whether the devices reduce deadly shootings and serious injuries or simply provide police officers with an opportunity to use excessive force.

Cost is also a concern in New Jersey. As the only state to require that stun guns be equipped with cameras, the price tag puts them out of reach of most departments.

New Jersey introduced a policy on the use of stun guns in 2006, but it was so restrictive that no department made an effort to obtain them.

The policy was revised in 2009, but law enforcement officials said they did not like it. Officers would not have been able to use stun guns even in situations where they would have been justified in using a firearm.

With feedback from police and county prosecutors, the policy was revised in October 2010 with changes that made stun-gun use more practical.

Aseltine said it was too early to analyze the impact of stun guns in the state.

“But the experience thus far is that officers are responsibly deploying these devices as an alternative to deadly force,” he said. “They have enabled officers to avoid shooting subjects, and, therefore, have likely saved lives.”

In the Teaneck incident, officers were called to an address on Queen Anne Road and, based on a doctor’s request, determined that the man should be taken to the hospital, the department said. When the man refused and became combative, an officer shot him with a stun gun. He was taken to Bergen Regional Medical Center, police said.

Teaneck police Capt. Glenn O’Reilly said his department issued stun guns to officers in March, and all patrol officers on the road carry them. He declined to give the exact number in use. Teaneck officers have used stun guns in three incidents so far, he said.

Englewood Police Chief Lawrence Suffern said his department first issued stun guns in January. Fifteen are now being used by officers, and 27 patrol officers have been trained in using them, he said.

Officers have used stun guns three times since they were deployed, he said.

In the incident involving the traffic stop, the driver who refused to get out of his car reached for something that the officers believed was a weapon, Suffern said. The driver was shot with a stun gun and taken into custody, Lawrence said.

In the incident inside police headquarters, a suspect started fighting with officers and was shot with a stun gun, he said.

“We have only had very few Taser deployments, and they have been very effective,” he said.

The Fort Lee Police Department has purchased 58 stun guns and has so far trained about 50 officers to use them, Officer Justin Wanco of the department’s training division said.

The guns are not yet being used because the department is finalizing technical issues, such as setting up charging stations at police headquarters, he said.

Officers should start carrying stun guns within the next few weeks, he said.

“A Taser is a useful tool as it offers law enforcement officers another alternative in often potentially lethal situations,” Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said.

Some officials in New Jersey have remained deeply skeptical of stun guns. When the device was first introduced in 1998, there were 46 states that permitted their use right away, said Tuttle, the spokesman for Taser International.

New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan and Hawaii were the only ones that did not permit the use of stun guns. Hawaii legalized their use in 2001, followed by Michigan in 2002 and Massachusetts followed in 2004, Tuttle said.

New Jersey remained the last holdout until it approved the weapons in 2009, but stun guns did not end up in the hands of officers until two years ago, after state officials drew up guidelines and protocols on their use, training requirements and methods of reporting instances when they are used.

The state’s rules on the use of stun guns remain among the most restrictive in the country, Tuttle said. The rules require that officers be trained at least once a year. Every incident that involves the use of a stun gun must be reported to the state Attorney General’s Office.

It is the high cost of stun guns, however, that has discouraged police departments from using them, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. A camera-equipped Taser costs about $1,200. With accessories and other related equipment, a state-approved model costs about $2,500.

This year, the office announced it would provide $1 million in forfeiture funds to help police departments buy stun guns. County prosecutors have been given until Dec. 31 to submit requests for funding.

Based on population, the funding for Bergen County – with a population of more than 925,000 – is capped at $60,000. Funding for Passaic County – whose population is nearly 506,000 – is capped at $50,000, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

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