New state policy bars police in N.J. from using force except as a last resort, restricts use of police dogs

attorney general of NJ
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal

As part of new regulations approved by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, police officers in the state will be barred from using force against civilians except as a last resort, and must intervene if they see another officer using excessive force.

The sweeping changes that apply to state, county, and local law enforcement officers are the first revision of the state attorney general’s use of force policy in two decades. Grewal announced the changes during a press conference on Monday.

Under the new policy, all forms of physical force against civilians are forbidden except as a last resort and only after the officer attempts to de-escalate the situation, providing the civilian with an opportunity to comply with the officer’s instructions.

All forms of deadly force against a civilian are also prohibited, including chokeholds and strikes to the head or neck, except as an absolute last resort when the officer reasonably believes that such action is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.

Officers are also prohibited from firing weapons at a moving vehicle or engaging in a high-speed car chase, except under narrowly limited circumstances.

The policy also provides new guidance to officers on the use of less-lethal force as an alternative to deadly force and as a tool for de-escalation, and establishes a “duty to intervene” that requires officers at all levels to intercede if they observe another officer engage in illegal or excessive force against a civilian. Officers must also request and provide medical assistance to civilians if necessary after any use of force.

Within 24 hours of using any physical force against a civilian, a law enforcement officer must submit detailed information about the incident to a new electronic reporting system. Officials said a version of the online system will be accessible for public review in the first quarter of 2021.

Supervisory officers, including police chiefs, are now required to review all uses of force by their subordinate officers to determine whether a particular use of force was proper and to identify systemic issues that may require retraining or other remedial measures. Every New Jersey law enforcement agency must conduct an annual analysis of use-of-force incidents to identify trends, including any racial disparities, and submit the analysis to the county prosecutor for review.

All law enforcement officers in the state will be required to complete a two-day training program on de-escalation and other tactics for limiting the use of force by the end of 2021.

“We are committed to making New Jersey a national leader in policing reform, and today’s actions deliver on that promise,” Grewal said of the new policies. “We are building on the important work already underway in the state’s best police departments and establishing a new standard of excellence across the Garden State. But today’s changes are about more than just reducing unnecessary use of force by law enforcement. We are also restoring the public’s trust in the work we do, which, in the long run, makes law enforcement more effective and everyone safer.”

Gov. Phil Murphy said the new policies are a major step toward addressing the gap in trust between police and the communities they serve.

Grewal also issued a statewide directive Monday establishing a framework for county prosecutors to convene working groups to address police interactions with special needs populations and those living with mental or behavioral health issues. The county working groups will review policies, programs and protocols to maximize the effectiveness of each county’s response to those with disabilities or those in mental health crisis.

Grewal also imposed several restrictions on the use of police dogs, prohibiting their use against crowds or protesters, or against those who are resisting arrest but do not pose a threat to another person. Recommendations will be made on additional restrictions regarding the use of police dogs by March 31 of 2021.

Grewal also said Monday that his office will be creating a new chief data officer position to oversee the compilation, interpretation, and use of the law enforcement data that is collected by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety.