Oversight report finds flaws in DOJ data collection of deaths in police custody

Advocates say without sufficient data, policymakers — and the Justice Department itself — cannot determine ways to prevent deaths of people in police custody. 

A civilian oversight report reveals that deaths in custody go underreported despite a law on the books that requires law enforcement agencies to report such data to the Department of Justice. 

The Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014, requires federal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the country to report data on all deaths that occur behind bars or while in police custody to the Department of Justice. The law also requires the DOJ to publish a report to Congress after analyzing the data to suggest ways to reduce deaths in custody.  

DCRA was originally passed in 2000 to require that only state and local law enforcement agencies provide a record of deaths in custody, but it expired in 2006. President Obama signed into law a new version, expanding the requirement to federal agencies. 

The Department of Justice, whose sign and flag grace are displayed before a 2021 press conference, has not successfully collected state and local data on deaths of people in police custody, a recent report found. The report revealed that such deaths go underreported to the department despite a law signed in 2014 that requires law enforcement agencies do so. (Photo: Sarah Silbiger-Pool/Getty Images)

But a report recently released by the Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found that despite being signed into law in 2014 — more than eight years ago — the DCRA has failed to be adequately implemented, which the report concludes as “both a moral and administrative failure.”

Their research, titled “A Matter of Life and Death: The Importance of the Death in Custody Reporting Act,” concludes that while federal agencies have reported required data since 2016, the data remains flawed. It also notes that the DOJ has not successfully collected state and local data and actually delayed doing so until 2020.

Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, pointed out during a media briefing last week that the report is timely.

“It was only about six weeks ago that Tyre Nichols was brutally beaten in the custody of five Memphis police officers, later dying of those devastating injuries,” she said. “But eight years ago, in 2015, Sandra Bland was found hanged in her jail cell. She was 28. A college graduate pulled over for a minor traffic infraction.” 

“These are examples of deaths in custody,” added Wiley, “and I don’t have the time, and neither do you, for me to name all the deaths in custody we know from eight years ago through today.”

Advocates say without sufficient data, policymakers — and the Justice Department itself — cannot determine ways to prevent deaths while in police custody. 

During a 2015 memorial rally in New York on the one-year anniversary of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a woman holds a poster bearing the likeness of Sandra Bland, 28, who was found hanged in a jail cell in July of 2015 after her arrest for a traffic violation. A recently released report found that deaths of people in police custody are being underreported to the Department of Justice. (Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

“We can’t solve a problem we don’t understand, and we can’t understand it unless we can count it and analyze it,” said Wiley. 

A review of 2021 records conducted by the Government Accountability Office found that there were at least 1,000 deaths that were not reported by states, therefore giving the federal government an incomplete picture of just how many people have died in police custody and the manner in which they died. Another report from UnidosUS found that more than 60 percent of deaths in custody are people of color. 

Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola College School of Law and expert researcher on prison deaths, told theGrio that while it is difficult to make any definitive conclusions about deaths in custody given the flawed data collection, her research and that of others suggest a majority occur behind bars and are medically related. 

A fence surrounds the Cook County jail complex in Chicago. Some of the leading medical causes of death behind bars are the same as those on the outside, heart disease and cancer, according to one researcher. But doctors have said among incarcerated people, the patients are often younger and their conditions more advanced. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Some of the leading causes of death in terms of medical causes of death — heart disease and cancer — appear to be the leading causes of death behind bars,” said Armstrong.

Healthcare professionals and doctors have shared with researchers that when they treat incarcerated people, they are often younger and have more serious, advanced stages of disease than non-incarcerated people. 

“That leads to questions about what type of health care is actually being provided behind bars,” Armstrong explained. “We, unfortunately, don’t have enough data … to be able to understand how many of the deaths are in fact preventable. And that’s one of the critical reasons why we need more data.”

A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the other causes of death include suicide, drug overdoses, homicide and accidents. The report was released in 2005, a year before the initial DCRA law expired. 

Armstrong says she and her law students in Louisiana every year file public records requests, which are often resisted on the local level.

“Some facilities will say, well, we’re not required to disclose that information. They say that we have it, but we don’t have to give it to you,” she said. 

In 2020, the state reported a total of six deaths in custody, however, Armstrong’s students uncovered at least 180 deaths in Louisiana prisons and jails. While this could be a trend nationwide, Armstrong acknowledged, “we don’t have a complete picture state by state.”

Some states, like Texas, have laws that require the reporting of deaths in custody, but many others do not. The report from the Leadership Conference and POGO makes clear that the lack of transparency on the state level is why the DOJ’s enforcement of the Death in Custody Reporting Act is so crucial.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has the authority to reduce grant allocations to states that don’t comply with the Death in Custody Reporting Act. A spokesman said the department committed late last year to enhance efforts to implement the act. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

DCRA gives the U.S. attorney general, currently Merrick Garland, the authority to reduce grant allocations for non-compliant states by 10 percent. Any withheld funds would be reallocated to compliant states. However, the report noted that the DOJ delayed making compliance determinations.

In a statement to theGrio, a spokesperson for the Office of Justice Programs, an agency within the DOJ, noted that the department committed in late 2022 to enhance its efforts to implement DCRA — including providing technical assistance to states — and released a public report outlining steps it will take to do so. 

“Since the release of the report, the Department has ramped up its efforts to improve the quality and quantity of DCRA data that is reported,” said the spokesperson. “The Justice Department recognizes the profound importance of reducing deaths in custody. Complete and accurate data are essential for drawing meaningful conclusions about factors that may contribute to unnecessary or premature deaths and promising practices and policies that can reduce the number of deaths.”

In “A Matter of Life and Death,” the Leadership Conference Education Fund and POGO issued five recommendations to the DOJ to better implement DCRA, including ensuring compliance from all agencies by issuing “clear standards for when and how the current 10 percent penalty will be imposed and impose the penalty on non-compliant states.”

The Department of Justice also told theGrio it is working with Congress to “strengthen the DCRA statute by improving the quality, completeness, and quantity of information reported to the Department” — something advocates say isn’t necessary.

“The history of DCRA shows that the department has previously developed far more rigorous plans than what exists today — under the same version of the law that is in force today,” according to the report. “The department has simply chosen not to implement them.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Managing Editor of Politics and White House Correspondent at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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