By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank’s police chief says he reviews every report of force used by members of his department during arrests, and hasn’t found any in the past five years that appear improper.
Chief Darren McConnell’s observation followed the release by NJ Advance Media last week of data on every arrest in which police used force in New Jersey over four years.
McConnell’s comments were made during an interview with redbankgreen that followed the analysis, posted on NJ.com, of more than 72,000 reports filed by officers throughout the state from 2012 through 2016.
After a 16-month investigation, reporters concluded that “New Jersey’s system for tracking police force is broken,” according to the report.
A use-of-force report is mandatory any time force is used in an arrest, and has been for 17 years, under a 2001 order of the New Jersey Attorney General. But Advance Media found “no statewide collection or analysis of data, little oversight by state officials and no standard practices among local departments.” In fact, most of the reports were sitting untouched in file cabinets, the news organization reported. So in the absence of a centralized database, its reporters made one.
The data on Red Bank police contained in the report showed 305 instances of various types of force used in arrests over the four-year period, or about 53 per 1,000 arrests.
The number of force incidents has fallen steadily from 2012, when 91 incidents were reported, to 46 in 2016, McConnell said.
While he has concerns about the way the NJ.com data was presented, McConnell said the “most troubling” aspect of it was the headline, “See how often police in your town punch, kick or use other force, and how they compare to others.”
“The reality was, even if you go purely by the stats they posted, especially for Red Bank but even for the state in general, [use of force] happens in very infrequent circumstances,” with the majority of such cases involving compliance holds, or the lowest level of force, he said.
In Red Bank, compliance holds constituted 288 of the 305 force cases, or 94 percent, he noted. Statewide, the figure was 81 percent.
Compliance holds can range from a cop firmly grabbing a subject’s wrist to a tussle that ends up with one or more people on the ground. (See definitions of the types of force here.)
Media focus on compliance holds “would be more accurate, and in my opinion more reflective of what is actually going on,” McConnell said.
The data can be trusted to reflect reality, McConnell said. “Most police officers, I know in Red Bank but I imagine everywhere,” readily report even the lowest levels of force in order to create a record in the event that the arrest subject later files a complaint, he said.
McConnell, a Rumson native who joined the force when he was 19 years old and became chief after the death of Chief Steve McCarthy in 2013, said no Red Bank reports go into a file cabinet without examination.
“Every use of force report filed in Red Bank comes to my office. I review it myself,” along with the accompanying incident report, McConnell said. A division commander does the same, he said.
The primary aim, McConnell said, is “to make a determination if [the use of force] seemed reasonable or not.” Cumulatively, the reports can also be used as an indicator of whether an officer needs retraining or new equipment “to help them avoid having to go to use force,” he said.
For several years, Monmouth County departments have factored the reports, along with excessive absences, on-duty car accidents, drug tests and other metrics, into an “early warning system” to alert chiefs that officers may be troubled.
“In the five years I’ve been here [as chief], I’ve yet to come across one I didn’t think was reasonable, based on what we had available to us” in incident reports and video from patrol cars, when available, McConnell said.
“We’ve yet to come across one, regardless of whether the individual being arrested made a complaint or not,” he said.
What does that suggest?
“I think it says they’re appropriately using force,” McConnell said of his 40 full-time and two part-time officers.
Twelve of the department’s cops filed 10 or more reports over the four-year period. One, Patrolman Jhonatan Quispe, filed 23, the most for the department. The data showed that Quispe reported using compliance holds in all 23 cases, and additionally used an “open hand or closed fist strike/punches” four times.
McConnell said he cannot talk about individual officers because of personnel regulations. But “none of his, or anyone’s, use of force incidents were deemed improper,” he said.
Generally, “to look at that just in terms of raw numbers is not the best way, or the only way,” to determine if there’s a problem in the way an officer is doing his or her job, McConnell said.
The number of self-reported use-of-force incidents may be a reflection of the fact that an officer is working night shifts, when most arrests occur, or making more arrests than someone on the kinds of assignments that typically equate to fewer arrests overall.
With a concentration of bars exceeded possibly only by Hoboken and South Amboy, Red Bank police deal with an unusually large number of arrests that involve force, he noted.
“It’s not really surprising that we see scuffles and fights outside of bars, and an officer sometimes can’t get control of a situation without getting somebody into compliance hold,” McConnell said. Those cases are typically charged as non-felony disorderly conduct rather than violent crime, but if two officers each grab one combatant to separate them, that’s two compliance holds — and two use-of-force reports for two cops, he said.
NJ.com reported that between 9 and 25 Red Bank officers would have been subject to reviews using separate standards used by police in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But McConnell said the comparison was moot here, because every use of force is reviewed in Red Bank.
Since 2013, McConnell said, the department has been the subject of five excessive force complaints. “All of them were investigated by the prosecutor’s office, and in all of them, the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing by the prosecutor’s office,” he said.
Additionally, those five cases were reviewed internally for local policy violations, and none were found, McConnell said.
In that time, one excessive-force lawsuit has been filed against the department, McConnell said. That matter, which is pending in court, was filed by an arrest subject who did not file a complaint with the department before initiating litigation, McConnell said.
More difficult to explain, McConnell said, was the race data, which showed that an African-American arrestee was 79 percent more likely to be subjected to force than a white person when taken into custody.
“I think that is the harder question to answer, and it’s so multi-pronged,” McConnell said. “It goes to the whole, larger argument of African-American males getting arrested at a higher rate, or incarcerated at a higher rate, or at a disproportionate rate to white males, and that’s been an age-old debate as to why that happens. I think the use of force probably follows that same trajectory.”
But the data cited by NJ.com “don’t tell enough of a story” to suggest that Red Bank police have a problem with race, he said.
“My own experience is that our officers are extremely fair. They like to work in a community that’s diverse,” McConnell said. “I think that’s one of the reasons most of our officers want to work here, because of the type of community it is.”
Whatever the arrest subject’s race or ethnicity, “if the use of force is appropriate, it’s appropriate,” McConnell said. “If the officer acted properly, then they acted properly. If they acted improperly, then they acted improperly.”
In “100 percent of the cases” that he’s reviewed since 2013, “the officers acted properly,” based on all available evidence, he said.
Reverend Henry Davis, who heads the Greater Red Bank Area NAACP, told redbankgreen he wasn’t familiar with the Advance Media report and declined to comment.
McConnell also said he’s unaware of any instances in which a use-of-force report should have been filed but wasn’t: “you don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. But he’s never encountered an instance in which a complaint was filed by an arrest subject against an officer who turned out not to have filed a use-of-force report, he said.
Even where there’s no question of appropriateness, McConnell said the reports can be useful as an indicator of whether an officer needs retraining or new equipment “to help them avoid having to go to use force.”
Police training in recent years has been bolstered with mandatory, annual de-escalation sessions.
“Certainly, people can make mistakes, and it’s not a totally clean job; law enforcement can be difficult at times, and things happen very quickly, and they not above making a mistake,” McConnell said. “However, the use of force is probably the most difficult decision an officer has to make, he has to make it immediately, whether it’s physical force or deadly force, and he or she knows it’s going to be reviewed immediately by supervisors, and possibly higher up,” by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s office or a grand jury.
“They’re very cognizant of that, and I think all police officers, with a very small number of exceptions, apply it correctly everywhere.”
“When I first started, we had nothing but our hands, a nightstick and a handgun,” said McConnell. Now, police carry also carry pepper spray, which is temporarily disabling but not physically harmful.
According to Advance Media, Red Bank cops used pepper spray in 4.3 percent of force cases, less than the state average of 7 percent; used their hands or fists on an arrest subject in 10.8 percent of cases, compared to 28 percent statewide; and leg strikes in 1 percent of cases, compared to 4.3 percent statewide.
Then there are the dogs.
NJ.com did not include the use of police dogs, which are considered “mechanical” forms of force, in its data, “because so few officers listed K-9s as a type of force” statewide, the authors wrote.
But while Red Bank’s two-dog K-9 unit has convinced several reluctant suspects to surrender, neither Hunter nor Eko, both Belgian Malinois, has yet to put the bite on a suspect, so no force reports would have been filed, McConnell said.
But they have been critical as de-escalation tools, he said.
In one instance about two years ago, when a suspect threw a knife at Patrolman Stan Balmer and then grabbed a second knife, Balmer loosed Hunter, which prompted the suspect to immediately surrender in time for Balmer to call the dog to a halt, McConnell said. That prevented not only the use of force, but possibly, deadly force, McConnell said.
None of the Red Bank cases included officers firing a weapon, using a takedown or batons, the data showed.
McConnell said the overall data on Red Bank speaks to “the caliber of officers and how they conduct themselves.”
“That’s not to say that officers back when I started, or even 10 years ago, were doing anything wrong,” he said. “But… we spend more time on making sure our officers do de-escalate and try to talk through a situation.”
Following the release of the NJ.com report, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal acknowledged that the state had failed to track officers who might be using unnecessary force, while state Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Colligan blasted it as “sensational” data that “only told half the story.”
On Wednesday, Grewal and an array of local law enforcement officials, as well as union leaders, announced plans to overhaul the system, “to improve our data collection efforts and ensure that any data we provide the public is both accurate and properly contextualized,” NJ.com reported.