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A new database forces New Jersey to re-examine police use of force


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: A new database forces New Jersey to re-examine police use of force

  • Lawsuit claims people in Delaware prisons are still being beaten, stripped, and tortured months after uprising

  • Only one more day to stop execution of one of the ‘Texas Seven’

  • Former Dallas police officer indicted on murder charges

  • Criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion boosted each other nationwide

  • Exoneration without compensation

In the Spotlight

A new database forces New Jersey to re-examine police use of force

For years, reporters in New Jersey tried to compile information about the use of force by police officers around the state, information that was not available in a central database. But too many police departments refused to release use-of-force reports or only agreed to release highly redacted ones, rendering them useless. Last week, after a year of filing and following up on hundreds of public information requests and entering, digitizing, and compiling the data, a team from NJ Advance Media has been able to create a database of police use of force from 2012 to 2016 that covers every municipal police department in the state as well as the State Police. The team describes it as “the most comprehensive statewide database of police force in the U.S.” [Craig McCarthy and Stephen Stirling / NJ Advance Media for NJ.com]

The data reveal force used disproportionately against Black residents. In the five-year period from 2012 to 2016, a Black person was three times more likely to be subjected to police force in New Jersey than someone who was white and more than twice as likely to be shot. A Black person was also more likely to be pepper sprayed and more likely to be injured by police and hospitalized than someone who was white. And in some parts of the state, those disparities are significant. In Millville, police used force on Black people more than five times as often as on white people. In South Orange, it was nearly nine times as often. In Lakewood, it was 21 times. The rate of use of force across New Jersey police departments is in line with the national average but there are, according to NJ.com‘s reporting, “hundreds of officers [who] used force with alarming frequency.” In the case of one officer, though Black people made up less than 16 percent of the town where he worked, every documented use of force was against a Black person. Lawrence Hamm, who runs a Newark-based social justice group, People’s Organization for Progress, said of the racial disparities in the use of police force evident from the new database: “We’ve been saying this for years but nobody wanted to touch it. I think because they knew if they opened this can of worms it would have profound ramifications.” [Stephen Stirling and S.P. Sullivan / NJ Advance Media for NJ.com]

Seventeen years ago, the state attorney general ordered police across New Jersey to document each time an officer used force. The idea was careful reporting of everything, including “the most mundane and most violent arrests,” to then be reviewed by supervisors and compiled into annual reports to be sent to county prosecutors and the attorney general. Eventually, the aim was the creation of a statewide database that would allow for officers who need intervention to be flagged and would inform policy changes and training. The idea was that “policing in New Jersey would forever be changed.” [Craig McCarthy and S.P. Sullivan / NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Instead, two decades later, New Jersey’s current attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, has had to hail NJ.com’s use-of-force database as “nothing short of incredible” and promise to fix statewide reporting and analysis and intervene when a troubling pattern of use of force by an officer starts to emerge. Grewal, who was appointed by Governor Phil Murphy in January, also acknowledged to NJ.com that when he was the Bergen County prosecutor he did not monitor use-of-force trends in the police departments he oversaw. [S.P. Sullivan / NJ Advance Media for NJ.com] “The bottom line is this information has been obtained and tracked by police departments and prosecutor’s offices and the Attorney General’s Office for years, but … no one was actually paying attention to the statistics,” Newark’s police director told NJ.com.  “We all share responsibility that we weren’t paying attention to it.”

After steady reporting on instances of police use of force over the past year, the state recently implemented an early intervention system to identify potential problem officers. However NJ.com notes that the state “did not mandate tracking use-of-force trends as a criteria, which experts called a gaping hole in oversight.” [Stephen Stirling and S.P. Sullivan / NJ Advance Media for NJ.com] In its recommendations for policies to reduce police violence in everyday interactions with civilians, Campaign Zero included the use of early intervention systems. The policy platforms include monitoring and documenting police use force, establishing an early intervention system to identify and address officers using excessive force, and requiring reporting by police departments and public records on officers who use force in violation of departmental policy or the law. They point to research on early intervention or “early warning” systems that, as one tool among many, can significantly reduce the number of complaints about office use of force. [Campaign Zero]

Stories From The Appeal

The James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Delaware [Wikimedia Commons]

Lawsuit Claims Delaware Prisoners Are Still Being Beaten, Stripped, and Tortured Months After Uprising. Meanwhile, the abysmal medical care that helped spark the riot persists. [Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

Only one more day to stop execution of one of the ‘Texas Seven’: The execution of Joseph Garcia is scheduled for Tuesday, after the state Board of Pardons and Parole refused to recommend him for clemency to the governor. Garcia was sentenced to death for a murder committed after he and six others escaped from a Texas prison. He was convicted under Texas’s felony murder law or “law of parties,” under which a non-shooter can be held as responsible for a death as the person who pulled the trigger. Garcia has multiple appeals pending, including before the Supreme Court. [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle] On Twitter, the anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean also notes that the governor could grant Garcia a 30-day reprieve. Prejean tells the story of Garcia’s life and his case at length, describing the trauma, including sexual trauma, he endured as a child. She also talks about the original conviction that led to him being incarcerated at the time of the escape, and how his lawyer in that case failed to present Garcia’s self-defense claim to the jury, even noting during his three and a half minute closing argument that “perhaps I shouldn’t have undertaken [Garcia’s] case.” And she notes the racism of the judge who presided over Garcia’s capital trial who admitted this year that he had, according to Prejean, “created a living trust that penalized his children if they married a non-white person.” [Sister Helen Prejean / Twitter]

Former Dallas police officer indicted on murder charges: Amber Guyger, the white Dallas police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean, a Black man, in his apartment in September, was indicted on murder charges Friday. Guyger, who claimed that she mistook Jean’s apartment for her own, one floor below, was originally arrested by the Texas Rangers on manslaughter charges a few days after the shooting.  The Dallas County district attorney, Faith Johnson, explained the change from manslaughter to murder charges to CNN.com, saying that manslaughter only involves the reckless commission of a crime while murder requires “intentionally and knowingly” committing a crime. “At the moment of the shooting it was a knowing … offense,” she said. The police department fired Guyger during a hearing on the shooting at the end of September. Guyger posted a $300,000 bond after her arrest. Johnson, the Republican incumbent, lost her seat in the November election and Guyger’s prosecution will proceed under John Creuzot when he takes over as district attorney in January. [Jason Hanna / CNN.com]

Criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion boosted each other nationwide: In Georgia, Nebraska, and Utah, candidates and organizers for this year’s elections connected the dots between expanding access to healthcare and fighting mass incarceration, improving substance use disorder treatment, and ensuring that people released from prison receive coverage they may not be able to afford otherwise.  Stacey Abrams, Georgia Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee, featured Medicaid expansion as a core policy in her criminal justice reform platform, calling it “a vital investment in public health and public safety.” Organizers for Idaho and Nebraska’s successful referendums to expand Medicaid told The Appeal: Political Report that similar messaging proved potent with conservative voters worried about the opioid crisis and substance use disorder. An Idaho organizer described occasions where he responded to concerns about giving people public benefits to people who use drugs by reframing Medicaid expansion as a way of “trying to give people a way out of addiction.” The Idaho campaign received a boost when Idaho Sheriffs Association endorsed it. [Daniel Nichanian, The Appeal: Political Report]

Exoneration without compensation: NPR looks at the struggle of Fred Clay, who was arrested for murder when he was 16, found guilty, and then went on to spend nearly 38 years in prison in Massachusetts before he was exonerated. Clay, now in his 50s, has been out of prison for over a year but has yet to see any compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction and decades of imprisonment. Under Massachusetts law, those who have been wrongfully convicted must sue the state and prove that they are actually innocent, a bar that even the state attorney general concedes might be too high. “If the state erroneously convicted you, right, and deprived you of liberty, you should be compensated for that,” Attorney General Maura Healey told the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Clay is not alone: around the country, more than half of those who have been found to be wrongfully convicted received no compensation, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. While 33 states, including Massachusetts, have laws regarding the compensation of people exonerated and released from prison, the rest do not. For Clay, even if he were receive the $1 million at which Massachusetts caps compensation, it would only amount to $26,000 for each year of his life that he spent in prison. [Christopher Burrell / NPR.org]

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