WOPD places middle of the pack in ‘Force Report’

WEST 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 report, the West Orange Police Department ranked in the middle of the pack.

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 West Orange Police Department provided was impacted by some of the situations that can cause inflation, West Orange Police Chief James Abbott told the West Orange Chronicle that the issue requires further inspection.

“I would be speculating if I were to offer a definitive opinion, however WOPD, by policy, requires the reporting of constructive force, which, while employed as a best practice, is not a statewide requirement,” Abbott said. “This in turn inflates the number of instances in which one or more officers must submit a use-of-force report.”

According to Abbott, the West 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. Abbott added though that the West Orange Police Department is “more circumspect” in its definition.

According to “The Force Report,” from 2012 through 2016 in West Orange, there were 199 total uses of force, with 29.3 incidents per every 1,000 arrests. The report also states that 68 West Orange police officers used force during the five years — the average number of full-time officers during the five years was 94; and there was an average of 2.9 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 that is not required in New Jersey. According to the report, Los Angeles’ system would have flagged one West Orange police officer for review; New York City’s system would have flagged 29 officers; and Chicago’s system would have flagged 34 officers.

Every use-of-force instance is reviewed by three areas of the WOPD,” Abbott told the Chronicle. “1. Internal Affairs identifies appropriate and inappropriate uses of force; the latter may be addressed through discipline, including a referral to the county prosecutor for criminal investigation. Additionally it identifies patterns which may result in placement into our early warning system for close supervision. 2. The commanding officer of the division the reporting officer works in, as this allows the commanding officer an opportunity to be more aware of the force their respective employees are engaged in and how his/her supervisors are responding to it. 3. Professional Development Unit, which analyzes for better policies, practices and training needs.

“Once these three divisions have submitted their findings and recommendations, they are reviewed by both the deputy chief of operations and the deputy chief of staff services, then presented to me in the form of executive summary,” Abbott continued. “I should note: Any time there is even a hint of misconduct in any IA investigation, regardless of the employment of force, I am immediately made aware well before the preceding has run its course.”

The report concluded that, based on population, a black person in West Orange is 173 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person, and that, based on arrests, a black person in West Orange is 29 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person. In the five years studied, though West Orange’s population is only 31.1 percent black, 64.3 percent of people on whom police used force were black and 60.8 percent of people police arrested were black.

“For starters, census population is not the correct metric as it fails to account for the fact that the overwhelming majority of those arrested in West Orange reside outside of West Orange,” Abbott said. “Beyond the foregoing I will need to analyze the data to determine if it is accurate and, if so, is it justifiable?”

According to the report, West Orange police used compliance holds, takedowns, hands/fists, leg strikes and pepper spray more than the state average, but used baton strikes less than the state average. West Orange police did not use deadly force on anyone during the five years. Out of 199 incidents in which force was used, West Orange police records say that 175 were in response to the subject resisting arrest; 64 were in response to the subject threatening or attacking police; and one was in response to the subject threatening or attacking someone with a car. For some incidents, more than one reason for using force is listed.

According to “The Force Report,” West Orange was below the state average in subjects being injured and in officers being injured, with 18.2 percent of subjects in West Orange injured as opposed to 21.3 percent statewide, and 2.5 percent of officers in West Orange injured as opposed to 9.3 percent statewide.

“Over the past several years we have carefully and intentionally nurtured a culture of dignity and respect for all those we encounter whether victim or offender,” Abbott said. “We also constantly train with the Federal Air Marshal Service, which is located here in West Orange, in ways to take control of someone resisting while employing the least amount of force necessary.”

Abbott believes the West Orange Police Department is doing a model job of policing itself and can serve as an example to other law enforcement agencies.

“I would offer our written directive on the use of force, our practices, policies, training and review procedures as a model program for the attorney general to roll out to all state, county and municipal law enforcement,” Abbott said.

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

“NJ Media deserves much credit for their efforts to document the actions of New Jersey police departments who claim to ‘serve and protect’ local residents,” 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’?”

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.