Two Star-Ledger reporters who helped compile a database of police use of force reports across New Jersey met with a packed room of interested and concerned citizens on January 9, 2019.
The event was organized by the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, SOMA Action and SOMA Justice.
Star Ledger journalists Stephen Stirling and Craig McCarthy were joined by Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League; Jennifer Sellitti, Director of Training state-wide for the Office of the Public Defender in New Jersey and head of the Office’s Police Accountability Project; and Alexander Shalom, Senior Supervising Attorney at the ACLU-NJ.
(Note: Maplewood Township is hosting a community meeting on police use of force on January 14; read details here. South Orange will be responding the The Force Report in a meeting embedded within the South Orange Board of Trustees meeting on January 28.)
In compiling the database, reporters filed hundreds of requests for information through the Open Public Records Act to obtain 72,677 documents from every local police department in New Jersey. The Star-Ledger/NJ Advance Media has continued to publish articles diving deeper into the data and following up with the NJ Attorney General and law enforcement agencies.
Stirling noted that Maplewood and South Orange were “significant outliers” coming in high in reported use of force “particularly along racial lines.” In fact, Maplewood ranked as the highest in the state in rate of use of force, and that use of force skewed toward a younger age in Maplewood and South Orange — particularly for black people below age 18 (race as a factor was more pronounced in South Orange, and the combination of race and youth was more pronounced in Maplewood).
Stirling touched on the July 5, 2016 incidents in Maplewood which resulted in 10 officers being disciplined and the removal of the Chief of Police — noting that no use of force reports were filled out regarding that incident: “We don’t know why.” Stirling said that six officers have been named in a lawsuit (one of whom was an Irvington officer). However, he added, “There’s not a lot of context we can provide.”
Stirling said he had two “thoughtful,” extensive conversations with South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll and Maplewood Police Chief Jim DeVaul and that both didn’t “reject our findings,” as many others in law enforcement did around the state. Stirling reported that DeVaul reported that he has stepped up discipline of officers, is working with the community (and the new Community Board on Policing) and has been actively working to curb the use of force on minors. Kroll told Stirling that he was working on race and use of force — as South Orange ranked very high in that category — and that he was building a training process to address that issue.
Stirling and McCarthy noted that there is no standardization across the state in how use of force is reported from department to department.
“When you get very little oversight … you don’t know what’s going on,” said Stirling. “We don’t know how many forms we do not have. We don’t know why … those forms were not filled out.”
“A lot of this is getting some kind of transparency so that you can identify particular problems,” said Stirling.
“This is not an investigation about bad cops,” he added. “The vast majority of these forms show that they are doing [their jobs] well, but when we can find so many discrepancies … I think it suggests that there needs to be a closer look.”
Morial said that it was undeniable that Maplewood and South Orange “have a problem.”
“People live in these communities because they have different expectations,” said Morial. “Because these communities are expected to be the best.” He added, “This is not about bashing police officers,” noting that he respected the need for and the difficulty of being a police officer.
“This is a problem that is in need of reform,” said Morial. He noted that smaller police forces don’t always have the resources for such investigations, reforms and best practice mechanisms. Morial cited the important role of the media and also wanted more transparency regarding discipline.
“Let’s not engage in denial,” he later added, saying the communities needed to engage in the process of reform.
“Let’s be the best,” said Morial.
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