SPRINGFIELD, NJ - The results of a new statewide data collection project from NJ Advance Media on the use of force in police departments is out.
The project, which is known as The Force Report, used Open Public Records Act (OPRA) search requests to document uses of force in police departments across the state between 2012 and 2016, the most recent year data was made public. The use of force by a police officer can range from compliance holds to keep a suspect still, to the use of takedowns, pepper spray, police canines, tasers and firearms.
In order to build he database, NJ Advance Media filed 506 public records requests in order to collect 72,607 use of force forms. The raw data for Springfield can be found on The Force Report website.
For NJ Advance Media reporter Stephen Stirling, who worked on the project during the 16-month investigation, the publishing of these files is important, as it helps to shine a light on many cases.
"Sunshine is the best disinfectant," Stirling said. "There is no reason that this data should sit and rot on shelves in local police departments. It is vitally important. The state attorney general called our work “nothing short of incredible,” while pledging reforms. That’s a pretty good indication that what we did is in the public interest."
Over the four-year span recorded in Springfield, there were 41 total uses of force, an average of 16.2 incidents for every 1000 arrests. Of the 41 incidents, there 36 compliance holds used, 18 uses of a hand or fist, three takedowns and two uses of leg strikes and pepper spray. There were no uses of a baton or a firearm. The number of uses add up to over 100 percent as there were instances where multiple uses of force were deployed in a single incident.
Of the reasons listed for the use of force, there were 29 instances of people resisting arrest, 16 incidents of people threatening or attacking police and five incidents of people threatening or attacking officers with a car. There were no uses of a knife or firearm to officers or other citizens during the reporting period.
In total Springfield officers used force at a lower rate than 339 other police departments in the state. The most recorded uses of force in a single year came in 2013, when 18 incidents were reported. In total, Springfield had a lower rate of force than nearby towns like Summit, Kenilworth and Mountainside.
In an article explaining how the report came together, NJ Advance Media reporters Craig McCarthy and Stirling wrote about the limitations of the data collected.
"This a living, breathing and imperfect database. Using force is a normal and necessary part of policing. This is not a database of police misconduct. A high number of uses of force does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing.
Use-of-force incidents are self-reported, and thus, forms are dependent on the accuracy of the completing officer. And that's if a form was completed at all, and if it was turned over under the public record requests. While every precaution has been taken to ensure the integrity of the available data, some small percentage of error is inevitable.
Not everyone interprets the statewide guidelines for reporting force the same. Some departments or officers may be more rigorous about reporting, thus making it appear as though their numbers are higher. Statewide baselines for force help account for these inconsistencies."
However, there were critics of the reporting. New Jersey State Policeman's Benevolent Association (NJSPBA) President Patrick Colligan released a statement decrying what he said was biased and unfair reporting from NJ Advance media.
"Police officers face an unparalleled challenge of saving lives, restoring peace, and bringing criminals to justice," Colligan said. "The situations they face are dynamic and involve split second decisions. They are not done within the safety and security of a newsroom."
In his statement, Colligan also said that NJ Advance media needed to refer to secondary case files such as witness statements to get a clearer picture of the use of force. Colligan also said that officers may use less force in the future if they are worried about ending up in the database.
"Articles like this only makes a difficult job today incredibly more difficult," he said in the statement. "The officer that is 'number one' today in your community on the database is likely the officer that consistently leads the agency in arrests. Good arrests. He is the officer that is proactively patrolling and attempting to put a dent in crime in your community."
In response to Colligan's statement, Stirling said that while he understands the PBA may have concerns, the work was thoroughly vetted before being published.
"No reporting is designed to make people happy or unhappy," he said. "We contacted the state PBA to discuss our findings on November 19 and despite repeated attempts, they never even responded. That’s their prerogative, and we welcome them or anyone else to engage us in a discussion about what we did. We’re not going anywhere."
Stirling added, "Beyond that, we went out of our way to build balance into this database. The statistician we hired to review our work said we were being overly deferential to the police. And, at the end of the day, this reporting is only as complete as the thoroughness of the officers’ tasked with filling out the forms in the first place."
Stirling also said that keeping the database up and active depends on what the state does in the coming months moving forward with the information. It also depends on funding and public appetite, but he and his team would like to keep it going.
And for Stirling and the NJ Advance Media team, keeping the public and state officials informed is worth the amount of time and effort that was put into the project.
"[Force is] the greatest power that we imbue the police with, so it’s critical," Stirling said. "And it’s not just for the public. Oversight and tracking of use of force data can be used to dictate training and deployments, which work to protect the lives of officers. From the perspective of the public, the scores of potential problems and red flags this data has raised around the state is more than enough evidence that this should be getting closer scrutiny."
To read more about The Force Report and to search up force statistics in other towns, visit the project website at http://force.nj.com/