Prosecutor hosts virtual town hall on use-of-force police policy

New mandates will go into effect in December.

Police brutality, abuse of power and the lack of accountability have been hot topics nationally since protesters took to the streets demanding change  after George Floyd’s May 2020 death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

New Jersey took notice, so last December, officials updated the state’s use-of- force policy to center around seven core principles that clarify key issues regarding police accountability. The new policy will go into effect in December and puts into writing concepts that were taught but not explicitly said in the previous mandate. It also includes 30 defined terms instead of just nine.

“That speaks to the need for clarity and to really flesh out these situations that these law enforcement officers find themselves in,” said Camden County Prosecutor Jill Mayer.

During her office’s two-hour virtual town hall on April 28, Mayer, Assistant Prosecutor Angela Seixas, Camden County Police Sgt. Raphael Thornton, police chiefs David Harkins of Gloucester Township and Christopher Winters of Pine Hill and Family Church pastor Ted Winsley came together to discuss what the updated policy means for residents and visitors.

The policy is not new. New Jersey’s attorney general first issued the mandate in 1985 and updated it in 2000.

“Even a policy that’s been in play 20 years is still more advanced than other policies throughout the U.S.,” Mayer noted.

The policy’s first principle is the sanctity of human life and service to the community. Though the concept was taught, it was not explicitly written in the older policy.

“Law-enforcement officers must respect and uphold the dignity of a person at all times, and they must never deploy force in a discriminatory manner,” said Seixas.

The second, third and fourth principles deal with when and how police officers should use force on the job. They are: “force as a last resort and the duty to deescalate”; “duty to use only reasonable”, “necessary and proportional force”; and “duty to use deadly force only as an absolute last resort”, avoiding actions that create a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury.

Thornton explained how deescalation can make all the difference in resolving a situation.

“All the core principles work together to create a thinking process for the officers, allowing them to work their way through critical instances,” he said. “Core principle number three, coupled with the other core principles, allows officers to be okay with slowing things down … For example, if an individual is only a threat to themselves, and they have a knife, we don’t say, ‘They have a knife, I bring a gun.’ We don’t have to say that.”

Slowing down through deescalation and using force as a last resort “gives officers the amount of time [they need] to get the proper resources out there,” Thornton added.

In addition to clarifying the old policy, the third core principle of the new policy adds specific definitions for different levels of resistance, as well as when different kinds of force are appropriate. Harkins jumped in, adding that the new definitions help officers understand the level of proportional force to be used.

“We wanted this, too,” Harkins offered, referencing the new policy. “While there was a lot of community input on this, I think it should be clear that it was police chiefs, law enforcement professionals and trainers that wanted this information added to the policy.”

The fifth, sixth and seventh principles address police accountability, caring for the injured and learning from past mistakes. The fifth principle, the duty to intervene and report, led to a robust discussion about the positive changes it could bring to police culture.

Harkins brought many points to the table. He acknowledged that while there are always difficulties in speaking out against a senior in any profession, it’s important to listen to your gut. He compared the change to when the Domestic Violence Act was introduced, sharing that although senior officers had more difficulty adapting to it, eventually it became ingrained, and there were younger officers who didn’t know the difference.

“It’s a change in the culture, Harkins said.

“If you see another officer do something, you have to get in there, you have to intervene, you have to report it,” Seixas added. “Otherwise, you risk doing something to hurt your own career.”

Winters suggested the policy could empower people to act faster as well, potentially solving more problems down the line.

Principle six deals with rendering aid after force has been used, something that wasn’t mentioned in the previous policy, but has been taught in the training.

“It is understood, even if the injury is something that you inflicted upon the situation, that you don’t just walk away,” Mayer elaborated. “Of course, you render aid. But to have this spelled out in the policy really punctuates the importance of that.”

The seventh and final core principle is the duty to report and review uses of force. New Jersey is creating a portal for the public that tracks every use of force by an officer in the state. Officers are now being retrained to be ready when the policy goes into effect.

The updated version of the policy and a presentation and livestream of the prosecutor’s panel are available on the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office website at camdencountypros.org/latest-news/ccpo-updated-new-jersey-use-of-force-policy-town-hall. The livestream is also available on the prosecutor’s Facebook Page.