NJ.com’s ground-breaking look at police force

December 3, 2018

Reporters at NJ.com took 72,607 incident forms from 565 municipalities in the last five years.

It took 506 public records requests.

It cost about $36,500 in records requests, digitization, data entry and fact-checking.

It took more than a year to go through all the data. It took months to clean it. It took many weeks to put it all together into an interactive database that anyone can use.

"The Force Report" came out five days ago, but it only took one day for New Jersey’s attorney general to admit that the state had failed to properly monitor how police officers used force — and to promise reform.

“They’ve analyzed it for trends,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said on Friday, according to a NJ.com update. “And they’ve analyzed it to see if there are patterns of behavior that should cause concern or raise red flags. That’s something that we should be doing.”

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“This isn’t a story about bad cops who are in bad departments,” said data reporter Stephen Stirling. “This is a story about how we don’t monitor the most impactful power that we give to police.”

How they did it

Last July, a New Jersey Supreme court ruling made “The Force Report” possible.

That ruling, which followed charges that a police officer punched and kicked a 16-year-old, mandated that under state law, public records about use of force needed to be released.

A team of eight reporters and two editors started requesting records from every police department in the state.

There was no standardized form.

Tens of thousands of them were hand-written. They came in more than two dozen different varieties. Some were one page. Some were five.

A remarkable number of the officers misspelled their own names, said data reporter Erin Petenko.

NJ.com’s data team spent months staring at spreadsheets, said courts and crime reporter Craig McCarthy.

Related course: Deadly Force: Using Data to Report Accurately on Community Policing

It took several months to get organized, then, NJ.com hired a company in India to start extracting about 40 data points off each form. It took more than a year to get all that data back and start cleaning it.

They compared the names of officers in the reports to officer pension data, checked badge numbers and compared newspaper clippings. Then they analyzed the types of force that were used.

Some of the things they found:

  • New Jersey had no uniform way to track use of force.

  • 10 percent of officers contributed to 38 percent of all use of force.

  • Black people were three times more likely to encounter police force than white people.

  • Towns with the highest use of force were suburban, liberal enclaves. In Maplewood, for instance, force is used in more than one out of every 10 arrests.

The team also examined how other cities monitor and handle use of force.

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NJ.com is made up of several New Jersey newsrooms, including The Star-Ledger, the Times of Trenton, the Jersey Journal and the County Democrat. The newsrooms are all part of NJ Advance Media

The stories that published last week are just the beginning, said Petenko: She and her team don’t want just their newsroom to use the information.

“We truly cannot find every story that could come out of this database,” she said. “We’re relying on people looking at it and finding those stories.”

How other newsrooms can find those stories

Newsrooms that want to build their own databases of police use of force need to know it takes time to figure out how to balance the project and the other work that’s still out there, Stirling said. NJ.com’s team benefited from leadership willing to pay for the project, he said, and from healthy data team members who kept each other going, Petenko said.

Before starting a big project, Stirling advised, do the gritty work that will save you time later such as creating a spreadsheet of every records custodian. And remember the bigger goal of the project to keep from getting bogged down in massive amounts of information, he said.

“If you lose sight of that for a second, it can become pretty grim pretty quick. This is not fun work.”

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A few weeks ago, Stirling contacted the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey to let them know about the project. They wanted to encourage other news organizations to dig into the data, said Stefanie Murray, the center’s director.

“That was amazing — the fact that a reporter recognized his news organization's limitations and is encouraging collaboration is important and commendable,” Murray said in an email. “This is how journalism in a strong, connected local news ecosystem should work.”

They also let readers know that the project was coming and offered plain-text email updates, Murray said, which have been clear and effective.

On Wednesday, Stirling is giving a free webinar from the Center for Cooperative Media on how to use the database.

“I love, love how transparent, open and collaborative NJ.com has been with this project,” Murray said. “It's an incredible public service, it contributes to the health of the New Jersey news ecosystem, and I hope it's a sign of even more to come.”