Project description

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 people to search every use of force by local officers and state troopers from 2012 through 2016, the most recent full year available.

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.

What makes this project innovative?

Rarely do iterative investigations as comprehensive as The Force Report revolve around such a central, custom built and searchable database. We knew from the beginning this novel database and the resulting analysis, all of which had never before been seen or known by anyone in the state, would be the beating heart of this investigation. Just the construction and release of the database represents a major public service, so much so the attorney general plans to model the state's new system for tracking and analyzing police force after it. They have already requested the underlying data. The database not only presents an incredible depth of information and analysis, but it empowers the public to analyze their local departments and present evidence-based arguments to elected officials — evidence that would not have been available without The Force Report. And that's been happening in towns across the state. In addition to the database, our interactive visualization of police force is innovative in its depth and presentation. The vertical scroll experience plotted 17,000+ data points in a 3D environment, allowing users both a casual overview of what it means to be an "extreme outlier," as well as the ability to investigate each officer more. The way we used discrete elements to represent individuals on such a large scale — and the way we combine 3D animation, a searchable map and scrollytelling — make the experience rich, intuitive, effective and aesthetic. The actual reporting revolved around the database and visual interactive, and all together the project created a unique approach that demanded impact and change. All told, The Force Report represents the single largest data-driven investigation in the history of both NJ Advance Media and The Star-Ledger.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

When confronted before publication, 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 a single word. 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 requested the full database created by the newsroom to begin building its system. As part of that effort, Grewal this year has begun holding a series of “listening sessions” across the state to hear people’s concerns in response to the project. Civil rights leaders and the state chapter of the NAACP, in conjunction with the state Legislature, is also planning a series of forums focusing on the racial inequality revealed by the investigation. And residents are organizing events and going to meetings armed with questions and deep facts – facts they never would have known without The Force Report. Local leaders are also responding. The mayor of Highland Park acknowledged racial profiling remains a problem in the city and promised steps to address it. Police officials in Jersey City said they would retrain the entire department on how to report force after it was found some incidents were going unrecorded. And the police chief in Maplewood announced a slew of changes to better scrutinize force and reduce its use against minors.

Source and methodology

The project FAQ is available at https://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2018/11/frequently_asked_questions_about_the_force_report.html The project methodology is available at https://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2018/11/how_we_built_the_most_comprehensive_statewide_database_of_police_force_in_the_us.html

Technologies Used

Not only did The Force Report identify a systemic problem in police oversight in New Jersey and outline solutions, but it actually filled the void left behind by the government's failure. This was necessary because, as it stands, there is no central collection or analysis of use-of-force data in New Jersey. Thus, there were no available resources online to help in the reporting apart from the American Fact Finder, which provided Census data, as well as state and FBI crime statistics, which allowed for certain force rate calculations. We filed 506 public records requests with every municipal police department, the State Police and all 21 county prosecutors' offices. Several towns initially declined to provide the documents, while others attempted to charge exorbitant fees for producing the records. Most of these issues were resolved amicably through negotiations, while an attorney was retained to settle the most stubborn disputes. All towns eventually complied. The data presented tremendous difficulties. Of the more than 72,000 forms, nearly all of them existed only in hard copy and a majority of them were handwritten. In total, they contained nearly 3 million data points that needed to be extracted. We paid $30,000 to contract an outside company, Invensis, to digitize the data. Because force incidents are self-reported by police officers, they inherently contain some human error. Reporters consulted with independent experts to devise an input and review system to minimize any additional errors during data entry. The company input batches of approximately 750 forms per day, which were then audited daily by a rotating team of six reporters. The reporters randomly selected 15 forms, or 2 percent of the daily batch, and checked roughly 600 data points against original records. Only a handful of times did a daily batch exceed the 2 percent error rate the team had set, often because of inconsistencies in forms used by different departments. In those instances, the news organization discussed the errors with Invensis and forms were re-entered correctly. The team also combined daily audits into a monthly file and conducted additional audits to identify problems. In total, the audits revealed a 0.6 percent error rate, well within the 2 percent benchmark. Once data entry and audits were completed, NJ Advance Media created a single, master database. Next, the data had to be cleaned and standardized. That included numerous different formats for times, dates, town names, officer ranks, codes and designations for race, as well as a variety of entries for criminal charges. In addition, officers often included mini-narratives to describe the nature of the force used, requiring a manual standardization of those sections to produce a meaningful analysis. The most difficult task was standardizing officer names. In some cases, one individual officer appeared in the database with five different name spellings. Reporters used identifiers such as badge numbers, state pension records and news archives to find errors. The team assigned unique IDs to each officer and incident. This helped prevent errors if different officers in separate departments had the same name. It also ensured standard analysis in instances in which a single incident of force involved multiple officers. Duplicate forms also posed a challenge. Each member of the team employed a different method for searching the database to identify and remove duplicate entries. The cleaning also identified numerous cases in which force incidents involved animals -- in particular, deer. Most animal entries were eliminated for the purpose of analysis. All data analysis was completed by the staff and reviewed by an independent statistician who is an expert in police research and data. We used Google Forms, Open Refine, Python and Microsoft Excel as our primary software during the collection, cleaning and analysis process. We used Amazon S3, HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Django to build the interactive website.

Project members

Craig McCarthy, S.P. Sullivan, Carla Astudillo, Stephen Stirling, Erin Petenko, Disha Raychaudhuri, Yan Wu, Blake Nelson, Ashleigh Graf, Christopher Baxter

Video link

https://youtu.be/q-cTjjLRDZI

Link

Additional links

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