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Report Finds Lack of Reporting on Deaths in Law Enforcement Custody, Even After Landmark Legislation

by Steve Horn

The Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Justice has unfurled a new study on state and federal law enforcement agencies’ reporting of deaths of individuals who were under the custodial watch of federal law enforcement agents. The results are disturbing.

“Review of the Department of Justice’s Implementation of the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013” examines state and federal law enforcement agencies and their compliance with the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013. That federal bill H.R.1447 and S.2807 calls for all federal law enforcement agencies to create an inventory of deaths that have occurred under their custody.

According to the report, many law enforcement agencies have yet to comply with the law, with work remaining to collect data. Further, it is not even clear to the Office of Inspector General that a full inventory exists of which federal agencies even have law enforcement authority. 

In fact, the inspector general concluded that it is “impossible ... to fully assess DCRA compliance for the whole of the federal government,” it wrote. “[U]ntil [the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics] collects complete reports from all federal agencies, the Department will be unable to determine the total number of individuals who died in federal custody and which agency had custodial responsibility at the time of death.”

Perhaps, even bleaker, is that state agencies had yet to comply with the law, though the statute required them to do so starting in fiscal year 2016. The state agencies, by contrast, may not begin doing so until 2020, the report concludes.

Further, within the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the agency has yet to include the time of death in its death-in-custody reports, making it difficult to track accurate causes of death for criminal prosecution, civil litigation, and administrative purposes. 

The agency has agreed to reverse this trend, it wrote in a November 2018 letter included in the report’s appendix. It supports a recommendation to provide a time stamp on deaths in custody, actual, general, or estimated time. For “the small number of cases for whom the time of death is completely unknown to the BOP, the BOP will report a missing value to [Bureau of Justice Statistics].”

‘Ferguson Bill’

Passage of The Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 in December 2014 came in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri. Riots erupted in the streets, and many have pointed to that moment in history as the zenith of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. 

In turn, some began calling it the “Ferguson Bill.” Its sponsor, though, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), said the bill is about far more than those events.

“People are calling this the ‘Ferguson Bill,’” Scott told The Marshall Project. “But we’ve been pushing this for much longer than that. Actually, it was originally in response to a lack of data about deaths that happen in prisons. We were trying to have a discussion about prison violence, when we started realizing, how do we have a discussion about this when there aren’t any facts?”

However, more than five years after the passage of the landmark legislation, the bill’s vision still stands far from achieving any real fruition. Facts, suffice to say, are hard to come by.

And, for that reason, members of the Law Enforcement Reform Working Group — which include organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the Drug Policy Alliance. and others — slammed the U.S. Department of Justice in a December letter for slow-walking implementation of the dictates of the Death in Custody Reporting Act. 

“DOJ’s delayed implementation of DCRA is unacceptable, as there continues to be an unreliable national census of custodial and arrest-related deaths, including national statistics on mortality rates, demographic impact, circumstances of these deaths, and implicated law enforcement agencies,” wrote the organizations in a letter addressed to the DOJ. “Simply put, the federal government does not know how many people are killed by law enforcement every year.… Knowing the number and circumstances of police-caused fatalities is crucial to developing policies that could reduce the number of such fatalities.”

“This data is also critical to providing the public and DOJ the information needed to ensure law enforcement agencies are complying with civil rights laws, and to assisting DOJ with fulfilling its enforcement responsibilities.” 



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