The greatest power granted a police officer is the legal right to harm another person. For nearly two decades, state, county and local officials in New Jersey failed to oversee this power, allowing violent officers to cause unnecessary injuries and deaths, while also costing taxpayers millions in excessive force lawsuits.
The data was at their fingertips the whole time they were doing nothing, in paper records in police departments across the state detailing every encounter between officers and the public. But the forms were never collected, digitized and fed into a database that would allow essential police oversight.
Until “The Force Report” came along.
The 16-month investigation by NJ Advance Media produced the most comprehensive statewide database of police use of force in the United States. The first-of-its-kind resource allows readers to search every use of force by local officers and state troopers from 2012 through 2016, the most recent full year then available.
This was a herculean undertaking. After a court ruling made the entirety of use-of-force reports public, the newsroom filed 506 public records requests. More than a dozen reporters fought obstructionist records custodians and outlandish fee requests to collect, digitize and standardize nearly 3 million data points from more than 72,000 paper records. Our analysis revealed alarming trends never known to anyone in New Jersey. Black people were three times as likely to face police force as white people. Just 10 percent of officers accounted for 38 percent of all uses of force. A total of 296 officers used force more than five times the state average.
And that was just scratching the surface.
When confronted with our findings, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal acknowledged the state for years had failed to properly track and stop violent officers. He promised reform before we published.
Upon publication, he called the effort “nothing short of incredible,” and later issued a rare joint statement with every leading law enforcement official in New Jersey detailing major changes to the system for tracking and analyzing police force, including the creation of a centralized database modeled after “The Force Report.” The state has since purchased the full database created by the newsroom to begin building its system.
As part of that effort, Grewal hosted a series of “listening sessions” across the state to hear people’s concerns in response to the project. A group of pastors also hosted a series of forums focusing on the racial inequality revealed by the investigation. And residents organized events and went to meetings armed with questions and deep facts – facts they never would have known without “The Force Report.”