Late to the game, N.J. learns from Taser errors elsewhere

Listen
 (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

(Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

Police in New Jersey have a new tool: Tasers. The Garden State became the last in the country to issue Tasers to police, less than a year ago.

Camden cops have already put the nonlethal stun guns into action. Though they’ve pulled out the devices half a dozen times in the six weeks they’ve had them, Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said his officers have only had to use the Tasers once.

The weapon can be used to emit an intimidating sound without firing its electrodes. And Thomson said, in most cases, the mere sight and sound of the stun guns are enough to let police gain control of the situation.

“We started to carry Tasers, which give us the ability to mitigate extremely dangerous situations without having to resort to deadly force,” he said. “We had our first deployment a little over a week ago … an individual who was an emotionally disturbed person who had attacked our officers with a large kitchen knife.”

That use of a Taser in Whitman Park, Thomson said, resolved the situation with neither the knife-wielding woman nor police sustaining serious injury.

“Tasers, when they’re used as a substitute for deadly force, are appropriate,” said Alexander Shalom with the ACLU of New Jersey. “Which is to say, when a police officer has the option of either shooting a person or using a Taser, we prefer they use the Taser.”

Tasers can be useful tools for police, but they must be tightly regulated and used wisely, he added.

Shalom said he hopes that — given New Jersey’s late adoption of Tasers — the Garden State will learn from the misuse of the devices elsewhere. He said it is vital to make sure New Jersey police officers are “not overusing it.”

Thomson said he’s learned from a lot of situations that have happened elsewhere. He said he’s working to make sure his officers use the new tools appropriately.

The equipment has a built-in monitor, and its use necessitates a lengthy department-mandated review process.

“It’s important to note that our Tasers have video cameras attached to them,” Thomson said. “So, whenever a Taser incident does occur, we are able to review the incident. We also have an extremely thorough review — within 72 hours of the incident — and produce our findings to the county prosecutor’s office who then gives a report to the attorney general on the appropriateness of the use of force.”

Thomson said his officers have been instructed on proper Taser use, including not directing them on people who could be injured by a fall from scaffolding or a staircase, or people who are next to a body of water or a flammable substance.

“We’re very judicious in how we use it,” he said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.