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The Bridge: Why Don't We Know How Many People Are Dying In Custody?

DCRA Implementation Lost its way

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The government can keep track of how many people die in custody

The absolute least we should be able to ask of law enforcement agencies is that they keep the people they detain alive — but they’re failing in that fundamental responsibility. Back in 2014, Congress reauthorized the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) to mandate that law enforcement agencies collect and report data on deaths that occur in custody. The law also requires the federal government to use that data to study ways to decrease the number of deaths in custody. But that research, mandated by the law, still has not been produced.

In this edition:

  • Disproportionate impacts on people of color
  • Missing pieces
  • And the need for a path forward

In an earlier edition of The Bridge, Spurthi explained that the government doesn’t know how many people die in custody, despite DCRA existing to address this. Yesterday, POGO and the Leadership Conference Education Fund put out a report that explores when, where, and why the agencies charged with DCRA reporting lost their way, and how the Department of Justice can fulfill its duty to fully implement the law.

Read now: A Matter of Life and Death

We know there’s a problem 

Last month, Tyre Nichols died at the hands of the Memphis police after a traffic stop escalated to a brutal assault. The city of Memphis released footage of the incident that stunned the nation. We’ve seen this kind of horrific footage before. And this was far from the first police killing of 2023. In this country, we witness the brutality of the police often.

And we know that this violence disproportionately impacts Black people. After analyzing 1,194 police killings from 2022, the Mapping Police Violence database found that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. A study from 2021 found that more than 60% of people killed by or who died in the custody of the police were people of color.

And these deaths are significantly undercounted.

DCRA was reauthorized four months after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. But despite the increased national attention on police brutality since then, little has changed. Every few months, we are confronted with another horrific story of a Black person’s unjust, needless death at the hands of law enforcement. Despite the consistent scrutiny from the public and calls for police reform, the Justice Department is failing to even collect the full data on deaths in police custody.

What’s the deal, DOJ?

Recently, the Justice Department claimed that differences in wording between the 2014 version of DCRA and an earlier version had tied its hands, preventing the department from designing a program that actually works. This excuse just doesn’t cut it. The department is choosing to read the law as narrowly as possible.

To fill the void left by the Justice Department, some states and nongovernmental organizations have worked to collect pretty impressive data sets. Texas, California, and Indiana all collect data on deaths in custody, as do nongovernmental organizations like the Incarceration Transparency project, the Mapping Police Violence project, and the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database.

All of this is to say: Collection is possible and can be used to advocate for policy reform. In Louisiana, for example, data from the Incarceration Transparency project showed that “over half of juvenile suicides in custody occurred while the individual was in segregation.” The data can be used to argue for changes in policies regarding the use of segregation in jails and juvenile detention facilities.

Asking the right questions

Of course, there are major flaws when it comes to the way the Justice Department is implementing DCRA, and the report lays them all out. But for now I want to discuss one issue that I found particularly obviousand that is whatdata is being collected.

The current version of the form used by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to capture and report data on deaths in custody isn’t asking the necessary questions. There are no prompts on who responded to the original service call, the number of officers who discharged weapons, or the number of shots fired. One would think this data would be crucial to anyone looking for ways to decrease the number of people killed during arrests or in custody each year.

An earlier version of this form even included these questions.

A problem that can and must be fixed

Our report gives straightforward recommendations that will improve the quality of data in DCRA reporting.

Quality data on in-custody deaths is a powerful tool for reducing those deaths. There is no accountability for deaths that go uncounted.

DCRA alone will not end violence by law enforcement, but it is a good first step. These are changes we are capable of implementing that could inform substantive policing reform.

Thanks for reading The Bridge. Spurthi will be back next week. If you want to keep up with our work around DCRA, you can subscribe to our email updates. Hope to see you over there.

— Kayla