By ERIN ROLL
In 2016, use of force by police declined dramatically in Montclair.
The number of use of force cases declined from 48 cases in 2015 to nine in 2016.
Of Montclair’s 103 officers, 70 were found to have used force at least once from 2012 to 2016. On average, Montclair officers who used force were involved in 2.3 incidents, according to a report by the Star-Ledger and NJ.com of use of force among police departments across the state.
The report showed that a significant number of subjects, where use of force was reported, were black and Latino. The data indicated that a black person in Montclair was 490 percent more likely to have force used against them than a white person when it came to police interactions.
“I’m not surprised by the results at all,” said Albert Pelham, the president of the Montclair NAACP.
When Pelham first became involved with the Montclair NAACP in 2006, he said the organization had several discussions with the Montclair Police Department about use of force, particularly in Montclair’s Fourth Ward, where the use of force was particularly high.
Pelham said a high number of incidents of use of force could be linked to a need for more training, or an expectation among officers of danger while on patrol. “Sometimes your guard is up when you go [to the Fourth Ward],” he said of what an officer might be thinking, in a hypothetical situation.
Pelham said he hoped the release of the data would prompt the community and the police to work together to start looking for solutions.
He also hoped for opportunities for the police and young people to have a face-to-face dialogue.
Montclair does not have it as bad as other towns, he said. However, “For us to believe it doesn’t exist is a fantasy,” Pelham said.
Police Chief Todd Conforti did not respond to requests for comment on the report.
Using a series of OPRA requests, NJ Advance Media asked for use of force reports from every police department across the state from 2012 to 2016.
For Montclair, 163 use of force cases were documented, involving 70 officers, with an average of 33 cases per 1,000 arrests during that time period. However, the database does not specify if any of the cases were found to have excessive or unwarranted use of force.
The most frequent reason given for use of force was resisting police control at 158 instances. The next frequent reason was threats against a police officer at 50 instances.
Prior to 2016, the numbers moved up and down: 30 in 2012, 47 in 2013 and 29 in 2014, 48 in 2015 and nine in 2016.
Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson said Montclair was where he expected it to be, referring to the number of cases and the decline in use of force instances.
Among towns similar in size to Montclair, Fort Lee had a recorded 280 uses of force, an average of 28.5 incidents per 1,000 arrests. Monroe, in Gloucester County, had 244 recorded use of force, an average of 39.1 incidents per 1,000 arrests.
Of Montclair’s neighboring towns, Bloomfield had 457 recorded uses of force, an average of 47.4 incidents per 1,000 arrests. Verona had 21 uses of force, with an average of 13.3 incidents. South Orange had 104 uses of force, with an average of 45.2 incidents. Cedar Grove had 45 uses of force, with an average of 42.9 incidents.
Two officers, James Lalor and Vidal Rojas, were tied for the highest number, with seven incidents each.
NJ.com cautioned that the rankings might not tell the entire story: “This database includes five years of force reports, but some officers may not have been employed by a department the entire time. So it’s possible they could account for a large amount of the force during their time but not appear among the top officers. Only officers who filled out a use-of-force form will be included in this database.”
The database cautions that simply because an officer has a large number of use-of-force cases documented doesn’t mean that force was excessive or unwarranted.
The most frequent type of force, used in 152 of the 163 Montclair incidents, was a compliance hold, in which an officer applies pressure to a subject’s pressure points to bring them under control. None of the Montclair incidents involved the firing of a service weapon.
Former Montclair police chief Tom Russo said the investigation and release of numbers was “not a bad thing.” But he warned the data was highly misleading, as the report did not state not why force was used, such as if someone’s life was in danger. “If you’re going to write a story about [use of force], make sure you include all the other information that goes along with excessive force,” he said.
Training can help officers be more aware on when it is appropriate to use force, and how much force to use, he said. Some police officers do, however, step over the line, and police departments have procedures to address it, including an investigation by Internal Affairs.
An officer who uses improper, excessive force will be found out, Russo said. For example, if an officer claims in a report that a suspect tried to grab his or her service weapon, that might potentially raise a red flag, Russo said. He said in his 42 years of police work, there were only three cases where a suspect tried to grab his weapon.
Russo added that police officers today are under a lot of pressure when responding to a call, and have to make split-second decisions about what to do in a situation. The pressure is heightened because police confrontations are frequently recorded, either with a department-issued body camera or by a member of the public with their own camera.
Jessica Henry, an associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University, said it was important to remember that the report revealed use of force numbers, not police misconduct.
And use of force, when applied correctly, is a necessary part of policing, she said.
Use of force by a police officer may include actions such as twisting a suspect’s arm behind their back, to the use of batons, pepper spray or service weapons.
Henry said the data on the ethnicity of people subjected to use of force especially stood out to her.
“That, I think, is something we need to pause and reflect on, especially in Montclair,” Henry said.
Police departments across the state have different guidelines for reporting use of force, which complicates matters, she said.
Additionally, a standardized electronic database where police departments could input data should be implemented, she said. The state could then use the reports as an opportunity to move ahead on a use of force database, as New Jersey is most often on the cutting edge when it comes to criminal justice reform, Henry said.
“One of the things I think we should 100 percent take away is… we should standardize reporting of use of force,” Henry said.