The Ledger’s Force Report: How Should We Read It When the State Fails Us?

Last year, the Star-Ledger issued an impressive, comprehensive set of data that at the very least shows how standard police practices disproportionately affect black populations. At most, it fuels the assumption that police are exhibiting bias, either implicitly or explicitly, in daily policing, potentially putting black and other non-white populations at risk of inequitable enforcement, in harm’s way, or worse.

The problem is, while inequitable police practices is the natural lede, the other major revelation of the report tends to get buried in the public discourse, but is nevertheless critically important: there is no way to objectively read the data because the state does not have a uniform way of collecting and analyzing data. This is important because while the numbers don’t lie: black people only make up for just over 13 percent of the population but are interacting with police at much higher levels than whites are.

The Ledger notes two decades of inconsistent reporting, despite the decades-old decision from the state’s AG office that orders police officers in New Jersey 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.”

But that goal was never achieved. Instead, it drowned in a sea of bureaucratic dysfunction and a statewide inability for towns to collect and report data digitally.

“The force forms, if completed at all, are tucked in filing cabinets and stashed away in cardboard boxes in every corner of the state. They are rarely closely examined, current and former law enforcement officials say. Thousands of them are incomplete, scrawled in illegible handwriting or even quarantined because of mold.”

This policy failing doesn’t provide cover for police departments that have contributed a culture of fear. Nor does it provide any benefit to those departments that have taken significant measures to mitigate inequitable policing like sensitivity training and de-escalation training. It also completely undermines any trust instilled through community policing efforts or trust established by officers who make a concerted effort to take a different approach to their profession.

And, most urgently, the state’s policy failing subverts any reasonable, across-the-board policy approach while many residents remain at a significantly higher risk of having forceful interactions with the police, putting them at a significantly higher risk of injury. That’s not to confuse “use of force” with “excessive force” and it’s not to say that use of force is not often a necessary police tactic. It’s to say that we have clear numbers that show police putting their hands on black residents at higher rates than on white residents, and that’s a problem.

Why? Profiling? Likely. Bias? Maybe, and particularly among bad actors. Does the fact that 75 percent of the use-of-force instances contained in The Force Report are for situations involving “emotionally disturbed persons,” or EDPs? How does that affect how we interpret the numbers? Seton Hall Professor Matt Hale unpacks several concerns in a recent op-ed, namely when it comes to comparing a town’s population to instances of use of force (assuming not all instances involved residents of that town), and being able to better digest town-by-town comparisons

Fortunately, New Jersey Attorney General Gerbir Grewal has since called for an overhaul in the statewide data collection system, emphasizing the lack of uniform data collection methods. His office noted that 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.”

That’s cause for alarm because time and time again we’re confronted daily with cases of police brutality by either bad actors or by bad policies and procedures.

So, what now? Like so many issues—from marijuana legalization to allowing residents to bypass federal limits on local tax deductions—the state’s lack of leadership leaves towns willing to confront the problem with a limited understanding of the issue and with little to no guidance.

The result? No change, same inequitable numbers regardless of the reasons, and big wheel keep on turning. We’re left with an infinite number of local stories of abuse and we know the numbers don’t lie: Blacks are disproportionately subjected to use of force than whites are.

When the Force Report first came out, I sat in on a webinar conducted by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State featuring Stephen Stirling, the data reporter for NJ Advance Media/Star-Ledger and one of the lead authors of the Force Report and the 16-month exhaustive investigation that led up to its publishing. Stirling recounted some alarming details of the paper’s data collection process, including:

  • Departments provided mostly handwritten forms;
  • “[The Force Report] is as good as the information provided to us,” indicating that many PDs did not provide complete information;
  • “Sometimes, there were no forms provided when force was clearly used.”
  • “We don’t know what is missing.”
  • “There are situations where four or five officers were involved in a single-use of force. Those are counted as a single incident. Even if five officers were involved, we count that as a single incident.”
  • “The only consistent race data we had was black and white.”

These points don’t represent an indictment of the Ledger’s excellent reporting, but rather they represent a fundamentail failing by the state to provide clear, uniform guidance for municipalities desperate to move police and other municipal operations into the 21st century.

Meanwhile, we’re left to figure out our own policies in our own way, as is the case in my native Highland Park. From a public safety, public health, and generally from a public policy standpoint, that’s just no way to fix a problem of such institutional magnitude. Local action is an important piece, for sure, but if the police are to follow guidelines set by the AG’s office and answer to county prosecutors, the state must take action and big picture policies need to aggressively come from the top on down.

Let’s fix this problem. Let’s make it a priority.

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