NJ police launch strict ‘last resort’ use-of-force policy
The chief wants it to be national model
By Rebecca Everett
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.
CAMDEN, NJ — The Camden County Police Department is rolling out a new use-of-force policy that is more restrictive than most others in the state, instructing police to only fire guns and use any other force only as a “last resort.”
Police Chief J. Scott Thomson said the policy — which has at its core the “sanctity of human life” — should stand as a national model for other departments in a time when police force is being scrutinized more than ever.
“We have long trained our officers in de-escalation and force minimization, but we wanted a policy that reflected that training,” Thomson said in a statement.
Officers in Camden are trained to take things slow, de-escalate whenever possible and take steps to avoid deadly force situations, even if it means retreating and waiting for backup. Thomson said it keeps both police and the public safer.
The department worked with New York University School of Law’s Policing Project to create the policy to mirror that training, with input from the ACLU-NJ and support from the local Fraternity of Police lodge.
Centered around six “core principles,” the 18-page policy details everything down to defining a “passive resistor” to a “threatening assailant” and how to decide what amount of force is proportional.
It also spells out that officers are required to intervene and report any use of force by another officer that does not comply with the policy.
It purposely goes beyond the New Jersey Attorney General’s use-of-force policy and U.S. Supreme Court case law established in Graham v. Connor — that an officer may only use force that a reasonable officer would when facing similar circumstances. Some in the law enforcement community argue that restricting officers beyond that standard will cause hesitation and put police at risk.
Thomson says a department should aim higher than just what is legal.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling in Graham establishes the constitutional floor for determining the lawfulness of an officer’s use of force,” he said in an email Wednesday. “No respectful profession uses the lowest bar standard to determine appropriateness for their actions. Imagine if the medical profession’s goal was to operate just above the malpractice line.”
The policy also says police may use force “to accomplish legitimate law enforcement objectives,” but can never use or even threaten force just to resolve the situation quicker or to force compliance with a request that isn’t strictly necessary for safety or law enforcement reasons.
While the Attorney General’s policy says officers should “exhaust all other reasonable means” before using force, the Camden policy goes a step further to say officers shouldn’t engage in “improper actions that create a situation where force becomes needed.”
Praise and pushback
Alexander Shalom, of the ACLU of New Jersey, echoed Thomson’s belief that police should ask officers to do more than just stay within the law when it comes to using force.
“The Camden County Police Department deserves praise for creating a policy which aims higher than the constitutional floor,” Shalom said. "This straight-forward, plain-language policy, which encourages officers to avoid force where they can and only use it when it’s necessary, will lend legitimacy to the Police Department and make the community and the police force safer.”
FOP Lodge 218 President Rick Kunkel, who reviewed the policy, said it reflects what officers there are already trained to do.
“The policy takes a commonsense approach to situations providing guidance for officers, while still leaving options open when the situation dictates appropriate use of force," Kunkel said in a statement. "Our agency has adopted a principle engrained in the preservation of life for both the officer and the offender and this policy matches that ethos.”
Stuart Alterman, a Marlton attorney who often represents officers, called it an “unnecessary progressive stance” that will lead to more lawsuits against police and put them at risk. He said the six core principles, when applied together, “will only cause police officers to second guess themselves during the most critical moments of their careers.”
“With all due respect to those individuals involved in drafting this new use-of-force policy, I’m wondering if it was really drafted by anarchists instead of those individuals attempting to support police officers,” he said.
Alterman said telling officers they will be punished for not monitoring whether another officer is using force inappropriately is also problematic.
“Is it going to cause police officers to be taking their eyes off the critical incident and begin to multitask in a potentially lethal engagement?”
Rich Rivera, a police practices expert and former West New York officer, is skeptical that the policy will change policing in Camden.
“Camden County Police epitomizes what a police department should look like on paper while simultaneously trampling on individual's civil rights,” he said.
Rivera in the past has pointed out that the department almost always sides with officers who are the subject of excessive force complaints. Between 2014 and 2018, the department only sustained four of 158 excessive force complaints.
Thomson, who will retire at the end of the month, said that a 95% drop in excessive force complaints filed since 2014 as a sign that the training in Camden is making a difference.
NJ Advance Media’s Force Report, a 16-month project that published data on every police use of force incident between 2012 and 2016, found that Camden County police — while policing one of the most dangerous cities in New Jersey — used force at a rate higher than 80% of departments in the state.
It also found that African-Americans arrested there were 447 more likely to have force used on them than white arrestees.
“Camden’s population is 96% minority and we recognize that there is bias in policing, both implicit and explicit,” Thomson said in an email. “We are committed to addressing it through training, supervision and data analysis to best mitigate against it."
©2019 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.