The use of force policy issued this week by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and a coalition of law enforcement and community leaders will serve as a national model and represents another groundbreaking step forward for New Jersey. The program reflects the fundamental premise that police officers must view and conduct themselves as guardians — not warriors — in the communities they serve. The newly unveiled rules, taken together, will make our communities and police departments safer, promote smart and fair policing practices and require meaningful public accountability for law enforcement agencies across the state.

Nearly as important as the policy itself is how the attorney general went about formulating it. The AG did not develop this policy behind closed doors in Trenton. Rather, the policy reflects input from prosecutors, police officers, community leaders, clergy and citizens alike. This is a policy for the citizens of New Jersey and law enforcement, created by those same constituencies.

It shows in the end result. The new policy strikes a sensible balance between permitting police officers to use force — including lethal force — where it is absolutely necessary to protect the public and themselves (as it sometimes is). But the policy makes clear that lethal force is an absolute last resort, to be used only when necessary to protect a person against a potentially deadly threat.

The key principle is de-escalation. Sometimes it is safer to slow things down, to pause or take a step back, rather than forward. This policy teaches the use of the minimal amount of force reasonably necessary, and to calm — not inflame — potentially volatile situations. We have faith that our dedicated police officers are fully capable of doing this. Many are doing so already.

The new program also provides clear guidance to police officers on the limited circumstances in which they can engage in vehicular pursuits. As we have seen, time and again, pursuits are dangerous and often deadly, potentially for law enforcement and civilians. We are also glad to see additional guidance about when police may deploy less-than-lethal force through conducted energy devices (commonly called “tasers”). When used appropriately by law enforcement, tasers can save lives as, for example, in the context of potentially deadly “suicide by cop” encounters where a despondent civilian threatens a police officer with violence for the purpose of provoking a deadly response.

None of this is easy. Police officers face dangerous and unpredictable situations every day, and at times must make split-second, life-or-death decisions. That’s why it is so important that this policy affords enhanced training for all police officers statewide — to enable them to learn the new guidelines and practice them so that they become second nature.

In the long run, this program will help foster trust between police officers and the communities they serve, and right now that trust is more strained than ever. We applaud the AG and all sides of this initiative for their collaborative efforts in advancing this policy and keeping New Jersey at the forefront of smart, sensible police reform.

Reprinted with permission from the December 22, 2020, issue of © 2020 Advance Local Media LLC. All Rights Reserved. 

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