Report: MPD is top user of force

‘The Force Report’ shows excessive racial disparities in police force in SO

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — After investigating for 16 months, filing 506 Open Public Records Act requests, collecting 72,607 use-of force reports, and spending more than $30,000 for its investigation and data compilation, NJ Advance Media released “The Force Report,” a comprehensive database and analysis of how often municipal police departments in New Jersey used force from 2012 through 2016, the recent years with the most complete data. According to the report, the Maplewood Police Department has the highest use-of-force rate of in the entire state and in South Orange the police are nearly nine times more likely to use force on a black person than on a white person.

According to NJ Advance Media, its investigative reporters “found New Jersey’s system for tracking police force is broken, with no statewide collection or analysis of the data, little oversight by state officials and no standard practices among local departments.”

“The Force Report” shows that, statewide, 10 percent of officers accounted for 38 percent of all uses of force; at least 9,302 people were injured by police from 2012 through 2016, though these numbers may in reality be higher as the report’s findings rely on accurate record keeping from police departments; and police are three times more likely to use force on a black person than on a white person.

NJ Advance Media also found that the state’s reporting system is a mess, without standardized forms. Many forms from various departments in the state reviewed by reporters were incomplete, illegible and/or lacking supervisory review, and many forms were just plain missing. According to NJ Advance Media, there were at least 62 forms that were so sloppy that an officer actually marked him or herself as dead. And three years of forms are missing from the Phillipsburg Police Department because they are under quarantine for mold contamination.

It is important to note that “The Force Report” does not necessarily imply misconduct, and use of force is not synonymous with excessive use of force.

“This is not a database of police misconduct, and a high number of uses of force does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing. On average during the five years, police used force once every 30 arrests, and the records underscore the dangers officers face on a regular basis,” NJ Advance Media reporters wrote. “They include stories of police stopping suicide attempts, helping autistic children in crisis and fending off attacks from people with guns, knives and even their teeth. Officers are spat upon. They have urine and feces thrown at them. Their dogs are attacked. Mostly, these events — then and now — end peacefully. But it takes a toll.”

Out of 468 municipal police departments, including New Jersey State Police, Essex County towns ranked from highest percentage of force used to lowest percentage of force used, as per “The Force Report” are as follows: Maplewood at No. 1; Nutley at No. 15; Belleville at Nov. 17; Glen Ridge at No. 29; Orange at No. 56; Bloomfield at No. 71; Caldwell at No. 79; South Orange at No. 83; Cedar Grove at No. 100; Montclair at No. 131; Fairfield at No. 160; West Orange at No. 203; Newark at No. 214; Irvington at No. 230; North Caldwell at No. 265; Roseland at No. 277; East Orange at No. 279; Livingston at No. 291; Verona at No. 386; Millburn at No. 403; West Caldwell at No. 440; and Essex Fells at No. 449. The State Police ranked at No. 426.

Poor record keeping can impact these figures; a municipal police department that does not record uses of force diligently will appear to have a lower rate of force usage. An inflated use-of-force rate can also be accounted for by: disagreements across the state about when a use-of-force report is required to be completed; and use-of-force reports filed for incidents that do not result in an arrest, such as restraining an emotionally disturbed individual for transit to a hospital. Various police departments also reported having to interact more with individuals under the influence of drugs, an assertion certainly supported by the statistics showing the growing rate of opioid abuse in the Garden State.

When asked if he believes some of the data the South Orange Police Department provided was impacted by some of the situations that can cause inflation, South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll told the News-Record that the issue requires further inspection.

“As for skewed data, I believe that yes, there ‘may’ be based on exactly what you mentioned as a broad definition of the term ‘force’; however, that being said, I believe the most accurate answer I could provide would be if I further scrubbed the data and re-reviewed each of the individual reports generated in that five-year period,” Kroll said. “So the best answer for you at this time is that further examination is needed.”

According to Kroll, the South Orange Police Department characterizes use of force as defined by the attorney general. The attorney general’s Use of Force Policy, issued in April 1985 and revised in June 2000, states that officers must complete a use-of-force form if they use physical, mechanical or deadly force; mechanical force is any force that relies upon a device or substance, such as baton, pepper spray or canine.

“I believe numerous agencies statewide and inclusive of South Orange can be better served by repeatedly educating the officers on the differences between ‘physical contact,’ which is routine or procedural in nature — not considered a use of force for reporting purposes — and ‘physical force,’ which is contact that is beyond that which is generally utilized, considered a use of force for reporting purposes,” Kroll said. “If officers are not consistent in their understanding and application” of physical contact vs. physical force “then the data generated will never be accurate and a true accounting of events either greater or lesser will unfortunately occur.”

Maplewood’s troubles with its Police Department have been well-documented in recent years, after video and other evidence surfaced of Maplewood police officers using what has been called “excessive force” on black teens following a township Independence Day fireworks display on July 5, 2016.

In the fallout and intervening years, as pointed out in a recent joint statement by the Maplewood Township Committee and the Maplewood Police Department, department leadership was replaced as the town took the following measures: appointed a new chief, deputy chief and captain; an outside consultant was hired to investigate use of force by Maplewood officers in the July 5, 2016, incident and to make recommendations to improve the department; organizational changes have been made to improve officer supervision, increase accountability, investigate allegations of misconduct, and implement appropriate discipline and training; more diverse hiring practices have been adopted; training for officers in use of force, crowd control and de-escalation was increased; the department’s training budget in 2018 was doubled; and the Maplewood Community Board on Police was created to allow residents to review police data and activity and make recommendations to the township.

Despite all this change stemming from the July 5, 2016, incident, according to NJ Advance Media, there were no use-of-force reports filed for that incident, a fact confirmed to them by Maplewood Police Chief Jimmy DeVaul. The News-Record reached out to DeVaul with questions regarding “The Force Report’s” findings, including a question about these reportedly missing records. DeVaul responded that he did not “have a statement at this point about the report itself.”

“The use-of-force review process we have here in Maplewood is very effective. We don’t count or watch numbers. The numbers don’t tell the whole story,” DeVaul told the News-Record. “It is my responsibility to have our officers understand that completing the use-of-force reports as we require by Standard Operating Procedure is in their best interest. We don’t want our officers not to complete the reports because the numbers will be used against them. This is also the best way to show transparency in the review process.

“Think of it this way, the numbers are not skewed one way or another,” DeVaul continued. “The process benefits the officers when a determination is made upon completion of the review by several levels of supervision independently that appropriate use of force was used. Cases that require further review are referred to our professional standards unit and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office as required.”

According to “The Force Report,” from 2012 through 2016, there were 337 total uses of force, with 111 incidents per every 1,000 arrests. The report also states that 59 Maplewood police officers used force during the five years — the average number of full-time officers during the five years was 61; and there as an average of 5.7 incidents per officer who used force during the five years, which is above the statewide average of four incidents per officer who used force during the five years.

Some major U.S. cities track use of force among officers to flag potential abuses of power — something not required in New Jersey. According to the report, Los Angeles’ system would have flagged seven Maplewood police officers for review; New York City’s system would have flagged 38 officers; and Chicago’s system would have flagged 39 officers.

The report concluded that, based on population, a black person in Maplewood is 368 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person, and that, based on arrests, a black person in Maplewood is 7 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person. In the five years studied, though Maplewood’s population is only 35.6 percent black, 74.7 percent of people on whom police used force were black and 76.8 percent of people police arrested were black.

“The chief of the Maplewood Police Department has implemented policies and procedures specifically to reduce the rate of arrests and use of force against juveniles,” the joint statement from the Township Committee and Police Department read. “Chief DeVaul has also overhauled the department’s oversight process, including personally reviewing all use-of-force reports, to uncover and eliminate any potential bias in how individual officers are using force. The department is also committed to continuing to document any and all uses of force by its officers in compliance with the guidelines of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. The Township Committee is committed to building trust between the police department and the community, and is confident in the leadership of Chief Jimmy DeVaul and Deputy Chief Albert Sally and believes the department is headed in the right direction.”

According to the report, Maplewood police used compliance holds and takedowns more than the state average, but used hands/fists, leg strikes, baton strikes and pepper spray less than the state average. Maplewood police did not use deadly force on anyone during the five years. Out of 337 incidents in which force was used, Maplewood police records say that 299 were in response to the subject resisting arrest and 90 were in response to the subject threatening or attacking police. For some incidents, more than one reason for using force is listed.

According to “The Force Report,” Maplewood was below the state average in subjects being injured and in officers being injured, with 16.9 percent of subjects in Maplewood injured as opposed to 21.3 percent statewide, and 6.2 percent of officers in Maplewood injured as opposed to 9.3 percent statewide.

“The township recognizes that the information in “The Force Report” is of great interest to the Maplewood community,” the joint statement concluded. “The Township Committee will be holding a community forum on this topic, including a range of stakeholders, on a date to be announced shortly. We look forward to a productive dialogue on this important subject.”

While the South Orange Police Department didn’t rank No. 1 like Maplewood’s, it still came in at No. 83 and serious racial disparities were found. According to “The Force Report,” from 2012 through 2016, there were 104 total uses of force, with 45.2 incidents per every 1,000 arrests. The report also states that 35 South Orange police officers used force during the five years — the average number of full-time officers during the five years was 47; and there as an average of 3 incidents per officer who used force during the five years, which is above the statewide average of four incidents per officer.

As for the rate at which other cities would be tracking South Orange police officers to review how they use force, according to the report, Los Angeles’ system would have flagged zero South Orange police officers for review; New York City’s system would have flagged 16 officers; and Chicago’s system would have flagged 18 officers.

“South Orange tracks use-of-force reports through our Internal Affairs Division,” Kroll said. “The lieutenant will obtain each report, review same and report back to me with any immediate concerns. For matters involving ‘physical force’ that may be deemed excessive in nature, those reports and investigations would be forwarded to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. I would also be notified immediately of any such serious matters, including an officer firing his weapon during any police-related encounter with an individual or individuals. All reports and officers involved in use-of-force incidents are placed into our early warning system and problematic officers and training needs are identified and addressed in a timely manner.”

The report concluded that, based on population, a black person in South Orange is 844 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person, and that, based on arrests, a black person in South Orange is 88 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person. In the five years studied, though South Orange’s population is only 27.5 percent black, 76.9 percent of people on whom police used force were black and 69.5 percent of people police arrested were black.

“Based on the population of South Orange, some percentages were generated or put forward which, on their face, do not seem indicative or representative of the fine job the men and women of the South Orange Police Department do on a daily basis,” Kroll said. “That being said, I do not believe census population in South Orange alone should stand as the accurate barometer to be utilized to indicate the percentages of either the race of individuals arrested and or the force reports generated. This is due largely to the fact that the majority of individuals arrested in South Orange during the five-year period were not South Orange residents.”

Kroll, who officially took over as South Orange police chief in October 2016, added that he has put forward mandatory annual departmentwide training regarding “eradicating racial profiling and implicit bias” and has reinstituted the 2005 N.J. attorney general directive on “prohibiting racially influenced policing.”

“I believe this program and training has already made a difference in the department and community,” Kroll said. “I am committed to continue my efforts to do things better for both the citizens and the officers that serve them.”

According to the report, South Orange police used compliance holds, hands/fists and baton strikes more than the state average, but used takedowns, leg strikes and pepper spray less than the state average. South Orange police did not use deadly force on anyone during the five years. Out of 104 incidents in which force was used, South Orange police records say that 97 were in response to the subject resisting arrest; 47 were in response to the subject threatening or attacking police; two were in response to the subject threatening or attacking police with a knife; six were in response to the subject threatening someone with a gun; and one was in response to threatening or attacking someone with a car. For some incidents, more than one reason for using force is listed.

According to “The Force Report,” South Orange was also below the state average in subjects being injured and in officers being injured, with 14.3 percent of subjects in South Orange injured as opposed to 21.3 percent statewide, and 8.7 percent of officers in South Orange injured as opposed to 9.3 percent statewide.

“South Orange is below the state average on injuries to both subjects and officers because we are constantly reminding our officers through training along with open and candid discussions to use ‘ONLY’ such force which is objectively reasonable and necessary to achieve the task at hand,” Kroll said. “Each officer under my command understands the importance of coming into a citizen encounter with this as a goal. To treat each and every individual with dignity and respect, which when continually practiced, will overwhelmingly lead to a safer and more productive community.”

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum said in a public statement that she supports the endeavor to track use of force in New Jersey, and that South Orange has been and will continue to be cooperative in these efforts.

“First and most importantly, I want to recognize and thank NJ Advance Media for undertaking such an extensive public information project on policing and use of force,” Collum said. “In South Orange, we were aware of this initiative well in advance of its public release as our police chief and internal affairs lieutenant welcomed and met with an investigative data reporter for over two hours to answer any questions he had and support this initiative that is inherently grounded in transparency and accountability, something we should all welcome, including law enforcement agencies.”

Kroll said he agrees with this sentiment and welcomes all efforts to improve policing and fairness in New Jersey.

“I am in support of any effort, including this one undertaken by NJ Advance Media, that would foster a goal aimed at improving the performance and service of each and every law enforcement officer throughout the state of New Jersey,” Kroll said.

Collum pointed out that “The Force Report’s” data ranges only from 2012 through 2016, saying that progress has been made in the intervening years.

“Since 2016, the concluding date of data collected, use of force in South Orange has decreased by roughly 50 percent and is down from its peak in 2012 by 80 percent,” Collum said. “In 2017, we had five instances where an officer needed to use force and year to date in 2018, we have had six instances. As the database also shows, the primary use of force in South Orange is a ‘compliance hold’ and is used primarily in response to ‘resisting arrest.’

“I attribute this trend to the ongoing work that is happening in the Police Department under Chief Kroll. De-escalation training is important and earlier this year, Chief Kroll initiated an ‘eradicating racial profiling’ training,” Collum continued. “On one hand, I’m pleased with the direction and emphasis on professional development and the standard to which our law enforcement officers are being held, but on the other hand, it’s to be expected — here and in every police department across the state. Fair and equal policing is a moral imperative and not just a lofty goal.”

Thomas Puryear, president of the Oranges & Maplewood Unit of the NAACP, told the News-Record in a Dec. 9 statement that his unit intends to follow up on “The Force Report.”

“The report clearly indicates that African-Americans living in South Orange and Maplewood have a right to be fearful of interactions with police officers. The two New Jersey communities that purport to believe in diversity have police departments that use force excessively against residents who are African-American. Relatively high social economic status does not exempt African-American residents from an excessive amount of force when they encounter local police,” Puryear said. “Perhaps ‘implicit bias’ is the foundation for the historical actions of either police force. Our unit is anxious to ascertain additional information on the officers who are reported to have used force in the execution of their duties. Of the officers who have been identified to have used force against residents, how many are still employed in either of the municipalities? What protocols have the police departments implemented in order to address the abnormal behavior of their police officers? How many of the officers have been investigated by their respective ‘internal affairs department’?”

According to Puryear, upon his unit’s active review of “The Force Report,” the July 5, 2016, incident in Maplewood was “predictable” in retrospect.

“Both municipalities need to develop proactive protocols that will give all residents equal protection under the law. Currently, African-Americans who reside in either town, are being victimized by the public servants whose job is to protect them from harm.”

New Jersey law enforcement leaders released a statement Dec. 5 supporting police, condemning excessive use of force and cautioning about data unreliability. The statement was signed by N.J. Attorney Gen. Gurbir Grewal, N.J. Division of Criminal Justice Director Veronica Allende, N.J. Office of Public Integrity & Accountability Director Thomas Eicher, N.J. Office of Law Enforcement Professional Standards Director Christina Glogoff, N.J. State Police acting Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan, County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey President Francis Koch, N.J. State Association of Chiefs of Police President Chief Richard Buzby, N.J. State Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Colligan, N.J. Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Fox, State Troopers Superior Officers Association President Rich Roberts, State Troopers Non-Commissioned Officers Association President Pete Stilianessis and State Troopers Fraternal Association First Vice President Steven Kuhn.

“Every day, New Jersey’s 36,000 law enforcement officers put their lives on the line to ensure the safety and well-being of our fellow residents. They do extraordinary work — often under challenging circumstances and often without the recognition they deserve,” the joint statement read. “Our police officers interact with the public millions of times each year, with interactions ranging from routine traffic stops to active shooters. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these officers handle the matter professionally and the interaction ends without incident.

“From time to time, officers are 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,” the statement continued. “Unfortunately, there may be a rare occasion where an officer uses violent force against a civilian without justification. We condemn such actions, not simply because such actions are wrong, but also because they do a disservice to the vast majority of law enforcement officers committed to upholding the highest standards of the profession.”

In their statement, state law enforcement leaders warned that some numbers may be misleading, especially as use-of-force data collection in New Jersey needs to be improved, as “The Force Report” determined.

“But numbers rarely tell the full story, and data can be easily misused to advance false narratives that malign our profession. The risks are especially great when the data is collected, reported or analyzed without uniform standards. Therefore, it is crucial not simply that we obtain accurate data, but also that we provide the context necessary to understand and explain this information to the public,” the statement read. “Last week, the Star-Ledger began publishing a series of articles about the gaps in the uniformity of our state’s use-of-force data collection efforts, as well as the newspaper’s effort to build a use-of-force database of its own. 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.

“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,” the statement continued. “We are committed to fixing this problem. It falls to those of us in law enforcement to improve our data collection efforts and ensure that any data we provide the public is both accurate and properly contextualized.”

In the statement, the law enforcement leaders announced a joint effort to design a new system for collecting accurate use-of-force data in New Jersey. Under the leadership of Grewal’s office, they intend to standardize the process that state, county and local law enforcement agencies use to record use-of-force incidents and report them; identify ways to contextualize use-of-force incidents with accurate information about the officers’ actions; and identify academic institutions with which to partner to help analyze use-of-force data and ensure the rigor of the state’s data collection efforts.

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