State law enforcement officials on Wednesday announced plans to overhaul the state’s broken system for monitoring police use of force in response to an NJ Advance Media investigation.
In a joint statement, New Jersey’s attorney general, along with the heads of the State Police, state county prosecutors' association and the Garden State’s major police unions, said they would be “working together to design a new system for obtaining use-of-force data in New Jersey.”
The announcement comes less than a week after the debut of The Force Report, a 16-month investigation by NJ Advance Media for NJ.com that found major disparities in how police officers use force and who they use it against, as well as paltry oversight and no standard reporting practices.
The news organization filed 506 public records requests and invested more than $30,000 to collect and analyze 72,607 use-of-force reports from 2012 through 2016, the most recent year available. The resulting database, published on NJ.com, included use-of-force data for every municipal department and the State Police.
Its release prompted calls for reform as well as criticism from some police leaders, who said the data, which was self-reported by law enforcement agencies, did not present a complete picture of the circumstances surrounding use of force.
“The articles make one thing clear: although individual municipalities, departments, or counties may have effective systems in place, our statewide data collection system requires a complete overhaul,” the statement said.
“But it is for this very reason that we also caution reporters and members of the public about relying on data in the Star-Ledger’s database: because our state lacks uniform data collection methods, the records obtained by the Star-Ledger may be inaccurate in some cases and may cause those relying on the data to draw incorrect conclusions about the state of law enforcement in New Jersey.”
Using force is a normal and sometimes necessary part of policing, and NJ Advance Media’s database and accompanying news stories noted the project was not an analysis of police misconduct.
In their statement, the law enforcement officials noted that in the line of duty, officers are sometimes “confronted with situations where they have little choice but to use force against an individual who is not complying with a lawful order or who poses an immediate threat to themselves or others. Oftentimes, this use of force is a necessary and appropriate response to a dangerous situation.”
But NJ Advance Media’s investigation found shoddy record-keeping, incomplete and illegible forms and other problems in the trove of documents reviewed by the news organization.
The group announced plans to standardize reporting among police departments, include more information regarding the context of a given incident and to partner with “one or more academic institutions” to make sure the state’s analysis is statistically sound.
“We intend to work quickly to develop new tools, with the goal of completing our work sometime in the new year,” the statement said. “We cannot do our jobs without the confidence of the people we serve, and we are committed to ensuring that the public understands when and under what circumstances New Jersey’s law enforcement officers use force during the course of their public duties.”