Long-Buried NJ Police Reports Reveal Racial Bias in Use of Force

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A team of reporters build the first coprehensive data base of incidents involving New Jersey police use of force. Photo by 10-42 Adam via Flickr

African Americans in New Jersey are more than three times as likely to face police force than white people, a news investigation has found.

The conclusions are based on data collected under official state mandate but left in “filing cabinets and stashed away in cardboard boxes in every corner of the state,” according to a report released today by NJ Advance Media.

The long-buried files are “a monument to two decades of failure to deliver on a system that promised to provide analysis, oversight and standard practices for using force,” the report said.

“Worse, the central (New Jersey) system that would flag potentially dangerous cops for review was never created.”

A team of reporters at NJ Advance Media spent 16 months examining the data and built  a  comprehensive database of  police use-of-force incidents reported by New Jersey’s 468 local police departments and the state police between 2012 and 2016—a database they say may be the most comprehensive of its kind.

Among their findings:

From 2012 through 2016, black people in New Jersey accounted for about 38 percent of arrests, yet they make up only about 14 percent of the adjusted state population.

Even when accounting for the fact that black people are arrested at a higher rate, they are still subjected to force at unequal rates when arrested. There were 173 local jurisdictions where a black person who was arrested was more likely to have force used against them than a white person being arrested. (That’s excluding departments with fewer than 25 uses of force.)


Table courtesy NJ Advance Media

“This is what I’ve known and lived for years,” said Milton Hinton, the former president of the Gloucester County chapter of the NAACP, who was among several community leaders asked to comment on the figures.

The news team also found that just 10 percent of New Jersey officers accounted for 38 percent of all uses of force, and a total of 296 officers used force more than five times the state average.

The statistics were originally gathered in the wake of a series of incidents involving racial profiling by police and controversial shootings. Police authorities were ordered by the state Attorney General’s Office to document every single time they used force against another person.

“The goal was to make sure nobody with a badge abused the greatest authority granted them,”  NJ Advance Media said.

But promises that the figures would be regularly reviewed and a database created to flag officers that required attention were never kept, according to the investigation.

“They are rarely closely examined, current and former law enforcement officials say,” says the report, adding that “thousands of them are incomplete, scrawled in illegible handwriting or even quarantined because of mold.”

Using the state Open Public Records Act, NJ Advance Media filed 506 requests for use-of-force forms covering every municipal police department and the State Police. The news organization spent more than $30,000 to extract the information from those paper records and build an electronic database detailing five years of punches, takedowns and shootings.

“That’s exactly the kind of analytics that we wanted to have when we initiated it,” said John Farmer Jr., the former state attorney general who enacted the first policy requiring use-of-force reporting in 2001.

“The intent of requiring these reports was to enable police executives, police management and, ultimately, the AG’s office to figure out what’s going on and, frankly, undertake the kind of analysis you’re undertaking,” Farmer said.

“I’m half-kidding, but you really have done their job for them.”

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said officials at every level in New Jersey have been “asleep at the wheel,” failing to scrutinize use-of-force trends and outliers.

“It was being recorded, but if the data is not being looked at or an analysis isn’t being done, then why are we capturing it?” Ambrose said.

Presented with an overview of NJ Advance Media’s findings, current Attorney General Gurbir Grewal promised to overhaul the system. That includes fixing New Jersey’s early warning system announced earlier this year and creating a statewide, electronic database of force.

He declined, however, to say exactly how the reforms would be implemented, or when.

“The hoops you had to jump through to get this data are completely unnecessary,” said Grewal, who took office in January. “It shouldn’t have taken you a year and 500 OPRA requests, and we’re committed to making this data more available, not just to the media but to the public.

“Folks have a right to know this information.”

The news team say figures culled from the database will be used to develop stories over the next few months in what they call “the most comprehensive examination of police use of force ever undertaken in New Jersey.”

As part of that effort, NJ Advance Media is making its entire database available to the public, letting anyone search by officer name or town, and ask questions similar to what reporters and editors have been asking for the past year.

How, for example, did a patrolman in Millville, a small city in South Jersey, report more uses of force than nearly any other cop in the state?

Why did police in the leafy suburb of Maplewood report using force at a rate higher than Newark, Camden or the New Jersey State Police?

And why had the Attorney General’s Office, which over the years improved standards for investigating high-profile police shootings and investigating officer misconduct, all but given up on using this data for oversight?


Craig McCarthy and Sean P. Sullivan are 2018 John Jay/HF Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellows. Their reporting was conducted as part of the Fellowship project. Staff writers Rebecca Everett, Stephen Stirling, Carla Astudillo, Disha Raychaudhuri, Erin Petenko and Blake Nelson contributed to this report. 

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