Defense attorneys and the state Public Defender’s Office say the unprecedented release of police use-of-force data in New Jersey could significantly bolster the rights of defendants who for years have had the odds stacked against them in court.
In the wake of The Force Report, a 16-month investigation of police use of force by NJ Advance Media for NJ.com, the attorneys said they have been strategizing over how they could use the data to gain more access to police personnel records in their cases.
“Until (NJ Advance Media) published (its) work, there was no resource like this available,” said Sharon Bittner Kean, president of the Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys of New Jersey. “We’re delighted to have a tool that could bolster the rights of defendants.”
The investigation found that while the majority of police officers in the state barely used force at all, many departments had individuals who did so far more than their peers. The data revealed that multiple officers who were charged with brutalizing suspects and other types of misconduct would have raised red flags had a system been in place to track use of force trends.
The entire database is now available to the public at NJ.com/force.
The attorneys said that accessing police records can be difficult during discovery. They said cannot request a police officer’s entire disciplinary record when they can’t present proof that there’s anything relevant to the case in it. With the newly released data, they said they may now have a basis to request and receive more documentation.
“A lot of people think we can just go into court, ask and a prosecutor just hands it over. That’s not how it works,” said Jennifer Sellitti, director of training and communications for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. “Now we can use statistics to support our argument. We can say we know this exists. That gives us something we can put into a motion.”
Bittner-Kean said the defense attorney association plans to discuss The Force Report at its next board meeting and brainstorm how to use it in court. Sellitti said attorneys working for the Public Defender’s office already have been combing through the database, and the office has been crackling with excitement at the possibilities it presents.
“This is something we’ve been discussing for a long time, and (NJ Advance Media) just stepped on the accelerator for everyone,” she said.
Sellitti also believes the newly released use-of-force data could prove valuable in other aspects of criminal litigation, such as reinforcing the prosecution’s requirement to turn over evidence that may be favorable to the defense.
“It adds some teeth to what we’re asking prosecutors for,” she said.
Matthew Troiano, a defense attorney who spent years as a prosecutor for Hudson and Morris counties, said the database removed barriers to learning about an officer’s history.
That could especially impact cases where an officer’s testimony conflicted with the testimony of someone he or she had arrested, Troiano said, because the differing accounts could be more easily compared to that cop’s past arrests.
“In that type of situation, it’d be extremely helpful,” Troiano said.
To build The Force Report, reporters filed 506 public records requests, collected 72,609 paper records and spent more than $30,000 to create the most comprehensive statewide database of police force in the United States. The records — spanning 2012 through 2016, the most recent year available — cover every municipal police department and the State Police
Terence Jones, a civil rights investigator, said he hopes The Force Report will prompt state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to push for more transparency in policing data and enact reforms that will allow for greater accountability.
“I think it’s an embarrassment that you have to have a news organization do the work of these agencies,” he said. “The police have proved they cannot police themselves. And right now, you have county prosecutors acting as if they are the personal lawyers of the police. The state is supposed to represent the people.”
Hours after the project was released, Grewal called it “nothing short of incredible” and promised to propose changes to the system. On Wednesday, he issued a rare joint statement with every leading law enforcement official in the state conceding they had failed to accurately track police force and setting forth reforms, including standardized electronic reporting.
We are continuing to make this dataset better. The numbers in this story were last updated Dec. 12, 2018.
Stephen Stirling | NJ Advance Media NJ.com, , 2018, “Alleged victims of police brutality have a powerful new tool in court, top N.J. defense attorneys say”