Less-lethal weapons endorsed for police

Thursday, February 14, 2008 BY RICK HEPP

Star-Ledger Staff
Police should have the option to use rubber bullets and other less-deadly weapons against suspects who threaten the officers, other people or themselves, a report released yesterday said.
The recommendation by the group of law enforcement and mental health experts appointed by Attorney General Anne Milgram would give police alternatives to current guidelines that require them to shoot to kill in dangerous situations.

"Police officers in this state need the equipment and training to help them control and de-escalate potentially violent confrontations without having to use deadly force whenever possible," the Advisory Committee on Less-Lethal Force wrote in its 12-page report.
The proposal, which must be approved by the attorney general, would allow police to use ammunition such as rubber bullets or bean bags when a suspect threatens harm but is not in a position to immediately carry it out.
"One example would be where officers confront a suspect who is armed with a knife and refuses to disarm," the report noted. "In these circumstances, the risk of resultant injury is real and entirely foreseeable, but might not be imminent until the officers were within striking distance."
Two similar situations last summer one of which ended in death, another with the suspect seriously wounded -- prompted Milgram to appoint the advisory group.
The first occurred in Maplewood, where police killed Omar Perry on June 29 after he came at them with a knife during a schizophrenic episode. Just eight days later, Willingboro police shot a troubled 15-year-old who they said attacked them with scissors.
Police should be allowed to use less-lethal force when suspects threaten to commit suicide or injure themselves, the report said. Officers are not allowed to intervene when a person threatens to commit suicide since the officers are not in danger themselves.
Less-lethal ammunition would not be allowed for use in stopping a suspect damaging property or for crowd control. During a public hearing in November, the committee was warned less-lethal ammunition may still be fatal if it strikes a person in certain parts of the body and head.
The committee said officers should not be required to use less-lethal force in lieu of their firearm, the committee said.
"A police officer faced with a split-second decision of this kind should not be second-guessed as to whether he or she might have used another force option to resolve a violent confrontation," they noted.
Milgram's spokesman, David Wald, said she plans to study the committee's proposal before making a final decision on how to proceed with less-lethal ammunition. The committee plans to hold a separate hearing soon on the use of Tasers or stun guns, which are currently prohibited in New Jersey.
"This is a very important issue to her," Wald said. "It's always been an outstanding question in what you do in less-lethal situations. Certainly, there are significant policy proposals in this recommendation."
Experts questioned some of the recommendations, including a proposal to allow only certain officers to use less-lethal ammunition and one to require only those officers to go through training on responding to mentally ill suspects.
"Quite frankly, any officer at any time could confront a situation with a person with mental illness," said Phil Lubitz, director of advocacy programs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "It's really imperative that we have training across the entire police force."
Edward Mamet, a former New York Police Department official who is now a law enforcement consultant, said all officers should be given two firearms their normal sidearm as well as one loaded with less-lethal ammunition -- so they can respond with deadly force if the suspect charges or their less-lethal shot misses.
"Officers have to have an option to use their firearm," Mamet said. "You can't expect them to reload with bullets after they use the rubber bullets. If it doesn't work, what are you going to do, throw the gun at them?"