The government has an obligation to protect people in its custody. But sometimes, law enforcement and corrections agencies and their employees ignore this responsibility, neglecting, abusing, and even killing people.
In recent years, police brutality and killings in the United States have made headlines and reignited calls for reform. Yet, despite public outrage, the United States still lacks the comprehensive national data needed to understand the scope and specifics of the problem and, ultimately, to enact meaningful reform.
Law enforcement and corrections agencies are not required to report incidents of use of force to the federal government. And federal programs that already exist to capture data about deaths in custody have failed to deliver accurate information to the public. For example, a Government Accountability Office audit discovered there were nearly 1,000 deaths in custody in fiscal year 2021 that states failed to report to the Department of Justice (DOJ). Meanwhile, DOJ has not determined state compliance with the death-data reporting requirements, and has no plans to penalize non-compliant states.
Comprehensive and accurate national data is needed in order to understand the factors that make inhumane treatment and deaths in government custody more, or less, likely. We must
fix the DOJ’s data collection practices to ensure complete and accurate reporting of all deaths that occur in government custody in the United States; and
require local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to report both fatal and non-fatal use of force.
Ultimately, to bring about meaningful reform, local, state, and federal lawmakers must craft new laws informed by these insights.