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Why Is It So Tough to Track Police Shootings in the Garden State?

The lack of hard data makes it difficult for law enforcement to do its job, raises mistrust and suspicion in local communities

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The death of Diahlo Grant, a 27-year-old Franklin man, during an apparent shootout with police in New Brunswick April 8, seems to be the fourth police-involved police shooting this year in New Jersey.

That use of the conditional -- “seems” -- highlights how difficult it is to obtain accurate data on police shootings in this state.

And while protests have roiled cities like Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Cleveland in response to police-related shootings, there’s been no unrest in New Jersey. That’s led many in the Garden State to assume New Jersey doesn’t have much of a problem with policing.

That would be a mistake, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and many local activists. Although 2015’s estimated 10-15 police shootings in New Jersey may be a small number compared with some states, activists say it only tells part of the story. They point to a lack of transparency, shoddy record keeping, and a lack of accountability to the public as serious problems.

New Jersey does not list police shootings in its crime reports and does not keep a central tally. Thus, the state could not supply statistics for the current year. NJ Spotlight had to review press releases issued by the state and county law-enforcement agencies to come up with the number four.

A national review of news accounts, press releases, and public records by “The Washington Post” published in December put the number of New Jersey fatal police shootings at 15 in 2015. An NJ Spotlight review of press releases from the 21 county prosecutor’s offices and state attorney general found 15 police-involved shootings reported, not all resulting in fatalities, while a state tally listed 10 incidents reported by local and county law enforcement in which police used force, all involving firearms, two of which resulted in fatalities. The tally is self-reported, meaning it relies on local police to voluntarily provide information to the state. The Post reported that, nationally, there were 990 fatal police-involved shootings, or an average of 19.8 per state. New Jersey ranked 25th among states using the Post data, tied with Maryland and Oregon. Four states accounted for 388 of the 990 police-involved fatalities: California with 188, Texas with 98, Florida with 60, and Arizona with 42.

“There is not a centralized database in New Jersey on police-involved shootings,” Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, said via email. “However, the Attorney General’s Office does receive information about all police-involved shootings.”

A 2006 directive requires all fatal use-of-force incidents and all that result in bodily harm to be reported to the attorney general’s office. The federal government does not track police-involved shootings.

The discrepancy in New Jersey numbers, critics say, is not a surprise because record-keeping by local police has not been standardized. Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, calls it a “mess” and says it impedes the public’s ability to understand how police operate and leaves local police unable to use state-of-the-art data analysis to improve their police practices.

“The record-keeping is a mess,” he said. “We don’t think there is malfeasance going on. We just think there is complete disorganization.”

The issue goes beyond the public access to information on police-involved shootings and the use of force to whether there are racial disparities in traffic stops, stops-and-frisks, and other police tactics.

“The issue here is what kind of information police departments track, specifically regarding police-civilian interactions,” Ofer said.

He said the attorney general needs to “issue a mandate to require police departments to maintain basic data on their practices.”

“That mandate does not exist right now,” he said. ”And New Jerseyans are mostly in the dark when it comes to basic knowledge of policing practices and racial disparities.”

Also, said Ofer, the state needs to insist on more transparency. He points to the statewide practice of withholding the name of a police officer unless he or she is criminally charged, as a double standard. “Police regularly release the names of other shooters without compromising investigations.” And this practice runs counter to what larger cities are doing. New York, he said, releases the names of police officers involved in a shooting within hours of the incident, while Philadelphia now requires the names of officers to be released within 72 hours. In New Jersey, that information is not considered public information.

“The large departments around the country are moving toward transparency,” Ofer said. “But the attorney general has been adamant about keeping police officer secret, to the detriment of family members and the victims of police shootings.”

Activists agree. They say the withholding of officers’ names -- and other details of shootings -- creates issues of trust, especially within the African-American community.

Activists in several New Jersey communities have been critical of the law-enforcement response to several of the shootings, especially those handled at the county level. They believe the state needs to become involved earlier in the process. County prosecutors investigate shootings by local police, while a state task force investigates shootings by county law enforcement. Most of the investigations have found that the use of force was justified.

Larry Hand, a Newark activist, said in September that there needs to be a process independent not only of county prosecutors but of the attorney general’s office, both of whom are too close to the law enforcement community.

“As a starter, there needs to be an independent prosecutor,” he said. Prosecutors and police are “too close to each other and there is too much of a history of failure to indict. It is almost impossible to get a police officer indicted.”

Law-enforcement officials, however, say the reason there are so few indictments is that police need the wide latitude they are given to react when situations demand use of force. They also say training of police in New Jersey makes unnecessary use of force unlikely.

Patrick Colligan, a Franklin Township detective and president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said the current system “certainly works.”

“There is no shortage of police officers who are indicted by county prosecutors’ offices, and not only in shootings,” he said.

“We’re not investigating our own,” he added. “The next level of authority is investigating. On a local level, where they are handled by the county prosecutor, these prosecutors have not shown any reticence to not indict a police officer.”

The April 8 shooting in New Brunswick is being investigated by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office. According to Grant was shot by Franklin Township police after the Somerset County officers chased him across the border into New Brunswick and Grant and police exchanged gunfire. Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey said his office was investigating, and that he would not offer more details. Members of Grant’s family told that Grant was not a violent man and would not have run from police.

Other police-involved shootings that have occurred in 2016 include:

  • The March 31 shooting of an unnamed, 23-year-old Butler man by Butler police that remains under investigation by the Morris County Prosecutor’s office. No charges have been filed.

  • The fatal shooting in Manchester Township on February 6 of a 27-year-old Michael Laniado by the Ocean County Regional SWAT Team. According to a press release from the state attorney general’s office, Laniado allegedly pulled a knife on officers. The incident is being investigated by the attorney general’s Shooting Response Team.

  • The January 28 shooting in Jersey City of the unnamed driver of a stolen vehicle, according to a press release from the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office.

“There should be some sort of state intervention early, just to restore confidence in the entire process,” Tormel Pittman, a New Brunswick activist, said via email.

The African-American communities in New Brunswick and Franklin are unhappy with Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey’s handling of the Grant case, he said.

“They said they cannot give out any information due to the investigation, but mentioned (Grant’s) background,” Pittman said. Grant was being sought for unpaid child support. Carey, Pittman added, would not name the officer, which “shows a prejudice and a bias” by the prosecutor.

Colligan did not want to comment on the specifics of the New Brunswick shooting, but he said he believes it will be investigated thoroughly. He said people, including family members, may want information immediately, but it would be irresponsible for investigators to provide information too early in the process -- both because doing so could impede the investigation and because it may not be fair to either of the involved parties.

“The officer and the suspect have the right to a complete and thorough investigation,” he said.

Still, Walter Hudson, an activist in Penns Grove in Salem County, believes New Jersey is no different from the rest of the country when it comes to lack of trust in the police. Hudson organized protests in response to the December 2014 shooting of Jerame Reid, an African-American, in Bridgeton in Cumberland County. Reid was shot by police after a traffic stop that was caught on video. The video went viral and the story went national.

Reid’s family and supporters -- including Hudson -- say Reid’s hands were raised and that the police should not have fired. The shooting led to a series of demonstrations and calls for the federal government to intercede. The Cumberland County prosecutor, however, determined that the shooting was justified and that Reid had been reaching for a gun located in the glove compartment.

“Clearly, we have bad police practices going on in the United States, especially when it comes to people of color,” said Hudson. “We are the most disproportionately and unjustly treated human beings in United States of America.”

Even if the numbers are smaller than some states, he said, African-Americans in New Jersey still face aggressive policing and are victimized by other socio-economic issues, like poverty, hunger, and failing schools.

He believes a federal law is needed that would require all police-involved shootings to be turned over to state authorities in each of the 50 states, to “ensure a fair and impartial investigation.”

“How can a fox investigate another fox over a chicken that’s been killed,” he said.

But Melvin Warren, criminal justice chairman for the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP, said the debate over police shootings and use of force is dividing the community.

Warren, a retired prosecutor’s detective from Essex County, said both the police and the urban community face problems that can only be addressed by working together. Residents in urban areas tend to have a negative view of the police, which makes it difficult for the police to do their jobs.

“To put it bluntly,” he said in the fall, “you have the police, and they have problems, and the community has problems. What you have here is the community is on the left side. You have a gap in the middle, and law enforcement is on the right side. When that gap in the middle is filled (by people and the police coming together), you can minimize the problem.”

He said every community needs to police itself by working with law enforcement and helping police identify criminal activity.

“The police can’t be everywhere, at every house and every corner,” he said. “That’s impossible until the community starts policing themselves, and they man up to their own situation.”

Warren said the system of investigation and prosecution needs to be updated, as well, to address questions of confidence. That may need to involve state- and federal-level officials.

“Anytime you have a shooting, good or bad, it creates an atmosphere of difficulty for both sides,” he said. There is a need, he added, to rebuild trust between police and the community.

Community activists agree that there is a need to rebuild trust and they say it has to start with better training of officers and further diversification of police departments.

“Police need more training, period, on how to deal with people who are either emotionally troubled or mentally challenged,” said Hand, of Newark. “That is tied up with the issue of de-escalating situations.”

Colligan said that kind of training already happens in New Jersey, which is why the number of shootings is relatively small. New Jersey officers not only are required to qualify with firearms twice a year, but also constantly go through tactical training that is designed to teach then to avoid escalating dangerous situations. New Jersey police academies are among the best in the nation, he added, and graduates are generally ready to work in any department in the country without additional training. That is not the case for those trained in other states, who attempt to work as officers in New Jersey.

Officers, he said, do everything they can to avoid shooting, because the costs are too high -- including mental-health issues that could result in them leaving the force.

“Every morning, we put a gun on,” Colligan said. “We put a bulletproof vest on and strap a gun on and we think about it every day. If there is a cop out there that can’t wait to shoot someone I haven’t met him.”

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