NJ’s police use-of-force reporting system hides abuses, investigation finds
New Jersey's system for reporting police use-of-force incidents is broken and ineffective, hiding some disturbing trends, a 16-month investigation has found.
The probe by NJ Advance Media for NJ.com, which was released Thursday, pulled data from 468 police departments and the State Police from 2012 to 2016. It found use-of-force reporting by local police departments was inconsistent, incomplete and, in many cases, missing altogether.
The investigation includes a searchable database for use-of-force incidents for police departments in every town in the state.
Some of the reports revealed officers used force, including pepper spraying suspects and physical force in making arrests, at an alarming rate. For example, one Atlantic City officer reported 62 use-of-force incidents in the five-year period, more than 15 times the state average.
Another officer in Trenton used pepper spray 22 times, or in all but three of his force reports during the period. Statewide, police officers used pepper spray in about 7 percent of use-of-force incidents.
Some departments pushed back on the report's findings, saying use-of-force ratings are higher in some instances due to arrest circumstances, including dealing with emotionally disturbed people and welfare checks.
Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, said the report lacked context and issued a two-page statement that criticized the state of the journalism industry.
Blacks were disproportionately on the receiving end of force used by police — the investigation found 214 New Jersey cities and towns where black people were more than twice as likely as white people to have force used against them.
Equally as troubling, the investigation found the state hasn't followed through on its own directive from nearly 20 years ago to establish a database to study trends and identify potentially problematic officers.
The mandate from the state attorney general's office came in the wake of several police shootings and racial profiling incidents in recent years. It called for police officers to report each time they used force. The data was to be collected, analyzed and summarized in annual reports.
Little if any of that has happened, according to Thursday's report. Instead, the paper forms collect dust in offices around the state and are rarely examined closely, current and former law enforcement officials told NJ.com. Many are incomplete or illegible.
Current state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told NJ.com he would look at overhauling the system, including creating an electronic use-of-force database.