POLITICS
10/03/2016 01:44 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2016

The Feds Will Rely On Media Reports To Help Count In-Custody Deaths. Here's Why That's Problematic.

A coalition of civil rights organizations say DOJ has to put pressure on law enforcement agencies to proactively report deaths.
Erika Kyte via Getty Images

WASHINGTON ― The Justice Department needs to put pressure on law enforcement agencies to proactively report deaths of individuals as a result of police force or while in law enforcement custody and cannot get a full count by relying on media reports, a coalition of civil rights organizations wrote in a letter on Monday.

Nearly 100 organizations say they are worried that the new proposal by federal officials to count in-custody deaths would fail to capture many killings by police officers, as well as that deaths of individuals in jail or in prison will be incomplete. Under the plan, officials in DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics would review open source information like media reports to identify potential arrest-related deaths and then seek additional information from the law enforcement agency involved.

“It is unacceptable that two years after Ferguson and the enactment of the Death In Custody Reporting Act, the federal government is not properly collecting data on fatal police shootings,” ACLU legislative counsel Kanya Bennett said. “We have reached a state of crisis with our police-community relations, and solutions can only come once we have solid data.”

The Washington Post has been counting police shootings, while The Guardian has been logging all deaths caused by use of force during police encounters. The Huffington Post is seeking to log every jail death that took place over the course of the year after Sandra Bland died on July 13, 2015. (Our reporting thus far has captured over 800 deaths, but the actual number is likely much higher. The last available data published in August 2015 indicates there were at least 967 jail deaths in 2013, a count believed to be more accurate than the federal database of police shootings, which is known to significantly undercount the actual number of deaths.)

But the civil rights organizations behind the letter worry that it will be “difficult for DOJ to get an accurate picture of trends in custodial deaths” unless state and local law enforcement agencies are “held accountable” for reporting data. They worry that the current media focus on policing isn’t going to last forever.

“Certain media outlets have been critical to understanding police-community encounters over the past year, but it is unlikely that national media attention and resources can remain focused on policing indefinitely,” the letter states. “Thus, relying primarily on media accounts and statistics is an inadequate method of collecting data to determine the circumstances under which people die while in law enforcement custody.”

The dozens of organizations that signed the letter also reiterated a demand that DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs require local and state agencies receiving federal grants to report their data. As indicated in the letter, just 444 fatal police encounters were reported to the FBI in 2014, even though the actual number of deaths resulting from police actions is closer to 1,000 per year. 

“The federal government awards close to $4 billion in such grants annually, and every discretionary grant should be conditioned upon providing data,” the letter states. The organizations’ letter also argues that data on sexual misconduct and law enforcement misconduct should be collected and reported. The last data available on police internal affairs investigations is 14 years old, collected in 2002. 

All three of the death databases compiled by The Guardian, The Washington Post and HuffPost largely rely on local news reports that are supplemented by public records requests. Given their public nature, police shootings and use-of-force deaths are more likely to generate news reports than deaths that occur in jail. HuffPost’s jail death database includes many deaths that weren’t reported at the time they occurred. 

“It’s important to realize that many more people die in prisons and jails then are killed by the police, and deaths in prisons and jails are entirely hidden from public view,” David C. Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in an interview. “Unlike police shootings, there are no cell phone videos and typically no witnesses except for prisoners and prison staff. Right now we know almost nothing about deaths in prisons and jails. Even basic numbers are very hard to come by.” 

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