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