What began as a story looking into police use of force by a single officer turned into a 16 monthlong investigation and hundreds of OPRA requests. The end result is the largest database of police force in New Jersey history. Senior Correspondent David Cruz sat down with Craig McCarthy, one of the NJ Advance Media for NJ.com reporters behind “The Force Report.”
Cruz: So how did this start? You went looking for one department to see how often they used force?
McCarthy: Yeah, so, it started, we were looking at a small town in Middlesex County, Carteret. We were looking at one officer who had been charged with an assault. We had heard anecdotally through our reporting that he was involved in a few other force-related incidents. At the time, it was before the Lyndhurst ruling, so we really had no way to stand that up. So after the Lyndhurst ruling that happened last July, we were able to now see every police department across the state — all the records of use of force.
Cruz: I mean, that sounded like it was really easy.
McCarthy: Yeah, it’s boiling down the last 16 months of my life in about a minute and the team of seven to eight reporters that worked on this for countless hours.
Cruz: Talk about that ruling first, what it was.
McCarthy: So the Lyndhurst ruling, in the fatal shooting which happened in 2014, the state Supreme Court ruled last year in July that dashboard cameras would be public record under common law, but also that the use of force forms would be provided unredacted under OPRA, under the state records act.
Cruz: And so there you go thinking, “Oh I’ll just go over there, ask for this stuff, and they’ll give it to us.”
McCarthy: So we started with the prosecutors’ offices thinking they had to report, the locals had to report this to the prosecutor’s office and then to the AG’s [attorney general’s]. So we assumed that there would be some sort of compilation of all these for every year.
Cruz: Somebody was keeping these records.
McCarthy: Right, so after a few denials and a few places that did fulfill, we realized either they did not have the records, or they could not access them — they were stored away in filing cabinets, or they were getting annual summaries, or, in places like Camden or Atlantic County, they were missing a lot of reports. So then we went to all the municipal police departments.
Cruz: And they just gave up all the stuff, too? No. You had to do like 500 OPRA requests, right?
McCarthy: Right, it took about 506 OPRA requests to get here.
Cruz: So you got all this data. What jumped out at you when you got a hold of all this data and compiled it?
McCarthy: So we started reading through the 72,000 forms, and I think one of the things that stood out instantly to me, when we had to count the forms, was that there was a standardized form, but it wasn’t really uniform across the state. Each one of the departments had a slight variation to how they collected certain things — whether or not photos were taken of an incident, or there was no standardized way to track emotionally-disturbed calls or anything like that. There was just no uniformity in it.
Cruz: We should point out that this is use of force, not use of excessive force, per se. Right?
McCarthy: Right. At no point does this database or anything we’re looking at here, that we’re portraying as of now is excessive force. This is just the self-reported forms of use of force that each officer, himself or herself, reports, and then it’s reviewed by a supervisor. It’s supposed to be then sent up to the county prosecutor.
Cruz: We should say also that police are trained to use the force necessary to get someone physically under control, or if they’re trying to run away, that sort of thing. That’s considered force as well.
McCarthy: Right, so anything as a simple twist of your wrist to get you into cuffs — the simplest definition of it — or if you do flee and you get tackled, all the way up to using your firearm. I mean, everything in that scale — pepper spray, a baton, anything like that — is considered force. And what they’re trained to do is to assess the situation and use the level of force that is necessary to match the level of resistance that the suspect, or whoever it is, in that situation.
Cruz: And so when you got the data, nothing in there was shocking to you. People of color more frequently had force used against them, etc.?
McCarthy: So what we found in this information is that this did affect people of color disproportionately. So if you look at just population data — which we used adjusted population — it affected them about 220 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person. But when it came down to looking at raw arrest numbers, they were still 40 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person.
Cruz: Not even so much the amount of incidents where force was used, but the lack of keeping of this data reached all the way to the attorney general, who said that he was surprised by this and that he was going to do something about it. What’s your sense of how that’s gone? Was it sufficient reaction to this information?
McCarthy: Well his reaction was that his early warning system that he enacted earlier this year is an iterative process in that they’re going to be adding to it. This was all created under the formed AG John Farmer, and what he had told us when we had interviewed him was this was what he envisioned when he brought out this AG guideline in 2001 when he suggested this form.
Cruz: Real quick, what’s next? You got some follow up, yeah?
McCarthy: Yeah, so we’re looking at a few departments that we’re carving out for a number of different reasons. We’re also going to, we have a race story that we’re tackling. We have a few other things in the works that you can find at NJ.com/force.