Verona is often proud to find itself at the top of many rankings, for things like the quality of its schools and the desirability of its residential real estate. But a database released on November 29 put Verona near the bottom, and that should suit residents just fine. That list was about the use of force by police departments in New Jersey.
“The Force Report” was compiled by NJ Advance Media for NJ.com. The news website gathered data on the use of force by 468 municipal police departments and the New Jersey State Police from 2012 through 2016. Verona was found to have used force at lower rate than 384 other police departments. Over the four years, Verona recorded just 21 total uses of force, according to NJ.com, or 13.3 incidents per 1,000 arrests. There were, by contrast 45 total uses of force in Cedar Grove, or 42.9 incidents per 1,000 arrests, and 80 uses of force in Caldwell, which works out to 46 per 1,000 arrests. Verona’s average incidents per officer was just 1.6, compared to 4.1 for officers statewide. (You can search the database here.)
For Verona Police Chief Christopher Kiernan, the reasons for his officer’s low use of force are clear: the quality of Verona’s officers, and their training. While Verona is a civil service department, Kiernan says that it conducts an intensive background investigation on each candidate to be hired.
The use of force by police has become a flash point nationwide in recent years, specifically the uses of force that have seemed excessive or that resulted in serious injury or death to a suspect. NJ.com noted in its story that its work “is not a database of police misconduct, and a high number of uses of force does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing.”
Kiernan emphasizes that point. “Please don’t read ‘use of force’ as ‘excessive force’,” he says. “Two very different terms. And I can assure you one thing, each and every instance was an incident where my officers well being or another person’s safety was at risk.”
Police officers are authorized to use force, but they must file a report every time they do so. One of the quirks of that requirement is that if multiple officers are involved in the same incident where force is used, each must file an individual report, rather than a single group report. Kiernan analyzed Verona’s reports and found that, while there were 21 uses of force attributed to the VPD, there were only 11 distinct incidents. NJ.com does not appear to have de-duplicated its results, so it is not known how the total incidents for other departments may vary from what was reported.
The news website found that at least 20 police departments were using force at rates significantly above the statewide average, and some were not located in cities with high crime rates. Maplewood, for example, which has only about twice the number of residents as Verona, had 111.0 incidents per 1,000 arrests, or 5.7 average incidents per officer.
Kiernan, who became Verona’s chief of police this summer, says that the training of Verona’s police force begins with a state-mandated de-escalation program, but doesn’t stop there. “We put a lot of money into training,” he says.
Verona has been enrolling officers in the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program promoted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). CIT is a so-called diversion program aimed at reducing arrests of people with mental illness while training police in getting these individuals to mental health services. “They teach us to see the warning signs that can lead to crisis, and give us verbal and non-verbal ways to resolve the situation,” Kiernan says.
Just about half of Verona’s officers have gone through the five-day training. “It’s at the top of my list to get every officer CIT-certified,” Kiernan says. “I would also love to see it be part of the curriculum in the Police Academy.”
After the list was published, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and state law enforcement leadership issued a joint statement praising police in New Jersey for their work, but acknowledging that the state must do a better job of collecting accurate data on police interactions with the public and making sure that the public understands the data.
“Our police officers interact with the public millions of times each year, with interactions ranging from routine traffic stops to active shooters,” the statement read in part. “In the overwhelming majority of cases, these officers handle the matter professionally and the interaction ends without incident.”