Latino leader: The Force Report shows we can no longer ignore the evidence of police brutality. We need reform and transparency.

Posted Dec 17, 2018

By Nestor Montilla

(Illustration by Jen Cieslak and Susana Sanchez-Young, Advance Local, Shutterstock)


Much has been said from New Jersey’s attorney general and police leaders in the wake of NJ Advance Media’s release of public data on police officer use of force. After the release of The Force Report on — the online home of The Star-Ledger — there is no mystery that some of the officers applying force most frequently were also the targets of years of internal affairs complaints and lawsuits naming them as defendants. Countless times police officials failed to intervene.

The Latino Leadership Alliance has been at the forefront of this issue since 2008, when we embarked on a statewide initiative to review police conduct, starting a dialogue centered on use of force and how police departments investigate citizen complaints.

Our efforts were later supported with a fellowship by the Open Society Foundation, which led to more than 5,000 force reports to be compiled and analyzed. We were shocked and dismayed to learn police departments were not required to examine these publicly available reports.

Most troubling was the routing of citizen complaints that appeared to get lost in a vicious circle. Those who filed directly with county prosecutors for brutality incidents were sent to local police departments, which were incapable of objective investigations of their fellow officers. Citizens’ complaints filed with Attorney General Paula Dow’s office received the same indifferent response. They were forwarded to county prosecutors, then to the same local police departments with which filers had hoped to avoid additional negative contact.

Police encourage residents to say something when they see something wrong. Clearly this was not meant for those who were inappropriately brutalized by police officers.

The trends in force data were alarming. We immediately reached out to law enforcement partners to share our findings. The Attorney General’s Office at the time adjusted the internal affairs policy and the prosecutors from Morris and Salem counties instantly revamped their oversight of local police agencies, with Salem County hiring an expert to oversee countywide accountability.

After sharing our data with then-Mayor Donald Guardian of Atlantic City, that police department reduced its complaints of excessive force by 19 percent, use-of-force incidents by 35 percent and overall complaints by 27 percent.

This proved that community collaboration truly works.

We also found a pattern throughout New Jersey in which “Hispanic” people subjected to force were recorded as “white,” thus underreporting the frequency force was used upon that group. This was prominent in Bergen County, where force was used in numerous towns at a far higher rate upon Latinos than their relative population in those communities.

Using this example, we learned language barriers existed and officers resorted to force in some instances because they perceived that people “resisted” when they simply did not understand officer commands in English.

Much could have been learned from analysis and auditing had police taken the time to properly report incidents.

In their joint statement, policing officials were disingenuous in baiting the public to believe that use-of-force data were somehow not uniform and are unreliable — that we should collectively sit back and wait for them to interpret their own data behind closed doors after they abandoned their responsibilities to monitor officers who used excessive force years ago. The fact is the state attorney general houses the Police Training Commission, which oversees basic academy courses statewide. The state does not devote enough resources to that commission.

All 21 counties in New Jersey standardize the training, definitions, report forms and how the data are collected. We cannot afford to wait for the same law enforcement leaders to secretly devise solutions for the very debacle they created while police officers and people subjected to force continue to sustain generally preventable injuries.

If police are better trained, supervised and equipped to humanely deal with situations, they should not have to resort to seriously hurting or killing someone when safe and reasonable alternatives would be available to them.

The Attorney General’s Office and police chiefs have once again lost public confidence in their abilities to hold officers accountable and to be transparent. Instead of pointing fingers elsewhere, they should now partner with our Legislature for sustainable legal reforms in police oversight that include decertification when officers lose the capacity to wear the distinguished and honorable badge for good cause.

Communities need to partake in the oversight of law enforcement practices in civilian review boards. Police executives and labor unions will argue that ordinary citizens do not understand policing and have no business in oversight. We argue that every police department already has civilian oversight through elected leaders and consent by society.

Our experiences since 2008 in sharing and interpreting police data with law enforcement executives is a testament to effective community-police partnerships and collaboration. We support police officers who uphold the Constitution and protect society around the clock.

We are concerned for their well-being, and our vision of collaborative policing is to reward good officers and identify the few bad ones who tarnish the badge.

The time when law enforcement secretly police themselves is long gone. We need inclusion and accountability now. Pa’alante! - Onwards!


Nestor Montilla is president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey.

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