New Jersey law enforcement officers will have far more latitude to use stun guns after a policy change announced Thursday that brings the state closer to guidelines followed by police departments nationally.
The policy continues to restrict the use of the guns to situations in which officers try to prevent suspects from causing death or serious injury to themselves or others, state officials said.
But the new policy eliminates rules - approved last year by then-Attorney General Anne Milgram - that discouraged stun-gun use as an alternative to deadly force in rapidly unfolding crises.
"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," Attorney General Paula T. Dow said Thursday.
"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," she said.
The restrictions were so stringent that New Jersey police departments did not purchase stun guns. New Jersey was the last state to allow stun-gun use under any circumstances.
The new guidelines are still more restrictive than elsewhere, but allow enough leeway to make the "less-lethal" option more practical, officials said.
No longer must officers be faced with an armed suspect before employing the stun gun's electronically charged darts.
No longer will they have to make the quick clinical judgment required by the old policy: Is the armed person "mentally ill" or "temporarily deranged"?
Nor will officers have to receive the permission of an on-scene supervisor to use the gun.
They'll be allowed to fire, despite the risks, to protect others nearby, the policy says. Earlier guidelines obligated them to use the stun gun only when a suspect was "isolated and contained."
Officers also can stun a dangerous suspect who is handcuffed, or fleeing from police custody, or injuring someone by, for instance, choking or kicking.
"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," state Criminal Justice Director Stephen J. Taylor said Thursday.
"This new policy provides responsible and realistic parameters within which police can use stun guns."
It eliminates limits on the number, rank, and duty assignment of officers who could carry and use stun guns.
Outside of SWAT teams in New Jersey, police forces in the state's largest cities could equip only four officers with stun guns under the old policy, and all had to have supervisory rank. Cities with populations of less than 25,000 could equip only one additional officer.
The new policy allows the department's chief executive to determine the officers who can carry stun guns, based on experience and judgment.
It also requires the use of guns that make a date- and time-stamped digital video recording every time there is a discharge. The recordings will be kept as part of an investigation of the gun's use.
The police "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 Maj. 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."
Area police chiefs greeted the new policy positively.
"I fully support the attorney general for working with law enforcement in establishing new guidelines which are both practical and effective for the officer on the street," said Cherry Hill Police Chief Richard DelCampo.
"Once training is completed and these less-than-lethal-force tools are implemented, another option will be available when dealing in situations where police use of force is required," he said.
The state's policy does outline some limits, such as recognizing that officers should take into account age and medical conditions before discharging the weapon.
It prohibits the firing of two or more guns at the same person at the same time and using the weapon against the operator of a motor vehicle or anyone in a precarious elevated position.
The new guidelines are "a drastic improvement over the previous policy, which was designed to give the tools to law enforcement but made it impossible to implement them," said Mitchell C. Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.
"No agency purchased any stun guns," he said, "and there were never any requests made for training, because nobody wanted to purchase the unit. The policy was unworkable."
Officer training would likely begin next summer, Sklar said.