By William Kleinknecht
MAPLEWOOD, N.J. — When Maplewood police shot a knife-wielding schizophrenic outside his home late last month, the incident raised questions about whether officers answering a medical call could have found other ways to subdue the man short of using deadly force.
One choice the officers did not have was the use of a stun gun or Taser because New Jersey is the only state that prohibits police from using such "less-lethal" weapons. They might have used other less-lethal weapons, such as beanbag shotguns or rubber bullets, but the department does not have that equipment.
The New Jersey Association of Police Chiefs and mental health advocates have been pressing for the use of less-lethal weapons here for years, noting that they would give police more ways to deal with mentally unbalanced people.
The June 29 shooting death of Omar Perry, 31, in front of his home on Peachtree Road in Maplewood is not the only case that has spurred debate over the use of such weapons. On June 7, Willingboro police shot and critically wounded a troubled 15-year-old who they said attacked them with a pair of scissors.
"The more tools that we put at the disposal of the police the more options they have," said Mitchell Sklar, executive director of the police chiefs association.
The Legislature passed a bill in 2006 that empowered the state Attorney General's Office to study the use of less-lethal weapons. But Sklar and others say the study never materialized because of the frequent turnover in attorneys general.
Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the office, said the new attorney general, Anne Milgram, planned to move ahead with the study and would get input from outside law enforcement and mental health personnel. He said the office is also studying issues not covered in the bill, such as the ban on police use of Tasers.
"The new attorney general has made this a priority," he said.
The office disclosed its intention to study such weapons after the Willingboro shooting, but Aseltine said no particular incident had influenced Milgram's thinking on the issue.
In every other state, police have one or more less-lethal weapons in their arsenal. Most are permitted to use Tasers, which are small guns that fire electric darts attached to wires that reach up to 35 feet. The electric jolt immobilizes the suspect.
Tasers are shunned by some authorities because of documented cases in which they caused a suspect's death, but a number of other devices are available, such as beanbag shotguns and rifles that fire rubber bullets.
Edward Mamet, a former New York Police Department official who has been a law enforcement consultant to New York State, said the vehicle of every New York police sergeant is equipped with a water cannon that can harmlessly topple an assailant. He said New York police also use special netting and a "shepherd's crook," a pole with a hook on the end that can be used to trip the subject.
But Mamet said small-town police departments typically do not have that equipment readily available to officers.
In New Jersey, beanbag shotguns and rubber bullets are permitted by statute to be used by police, but only under conditions that would also justify the use of deadly force. For example, they could not be used to disperse a crowd or disable someone about to commit suicide, but they could be used on a knife-wielding suspect.
However, there appears to be confusion among the police on whether officers can use such equipment. Aseltine said police are looking to his office for guidance on the issue and that it would be given when his office completes the study.
Robert Cimino, the Maplewood police chief, said his officers carry no such tools in their vehicles. Asked whether he believed police should carry nonlethal weapons, he said that he would follow the attorney general's lead on the issue.
Few new details have emerged about the Maplewood shooting. Perry, the man who was shot, checked out of the psychiatric wing of Essex County Hospital Center on June 8 after his doctors and family members decided he was well enough to return home, said hospital director Lucia Guarini.
But his sister, Serina Perry, said she telephoned for an ambulance at 11:30 a.m. on the morning of June 29 after she found her brother cutting himself with a kitchen knife that she said was about 6 inches long.
She said her brother was in the middle of the street with the knife when police arrived with their guns drawn and yelled at him repeatedly to drop the knife. She said her brother ignored them and said, "What are you going to do, shoot me?" shortly before police opened fire. She said she averted her eyes and heard but did not see the shooting.
Both the Maplewood police and the Essex County Prosecutor's Office have declined to identify the officers and will not say how many shots were fired. The prosecutor's office said the police fired because the suspect was coming toward them with the knife.
Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said yesterday that his office would make no further comment on the case while it is still under investigation.
Besides the issue of equipment, Perry's death raises questions about whether the officers adhered to established procedures for dealing with the mentally ill.
Every police officer in Essex County and elsewhere in the state is given training in the police academy on dealing with people with "special needs." Among other things, they are instructed to avoid actions that excite or threaten the subject.
Mamet, the police consultant, said the officers' actions in Maplewood, if the family's version is accurate, appeared to violate procedures. He said the officers should not have arrived with their guns drawn and should not have yelled at Perry to drop the weapon. He said one officer should do all the talking and speak as calmly as possible.
If Perry came toward them with the knife, he said, they should have retreated until they could figure out a way to disarm him without lethal force.
"If you have an open space, there is no reason why you have to stand your ground and shoot a person," Mamet said.
Cimino said he could not comment on the specifics of the Perry case. He said, however, that his officers receive adequate training in dealing with emotionally disturbed people. He said his officers are advised in such cases to summon mental health personnel from East Orange General Hospital, but he said that is not always feasible in fast-moving situations.
"Every situation presents its own characteristics and requirements," he said.
Copyright 2007 Newark Morning Ledger Co.
N.J. police shooting sparks debate on nonlethal weapons