Since 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been documenting deaths of citizens by police, also known as Arrest Related Deaths (ARD). It is “designed it to be a census of all deaths that occur during the process of arrest or during an attempt to obtain custody by a state or local law enforcement agency in the United States” according to the website. The federal bureau also tracks records of “Deaths in Custody Program (DCRP)” which records deaths of prisoners while in jail or prison. According to the BJS, which released its preliminary findings from 2015, an estimated 1,900 ARDs occurred (over a 12 month period in 2015 and 2016).
Unfortunately, the BJS had to rely on “open-source” data for much of its calculations as there is no federal database, mandated for use in reporting such deaths. It had previously been estimated, based on reports from surveyed agencies, that there were only 425 deaths but after an exhaustive search of media reports, a total approaching 2,000 was discovered to have occurred between June of 2015 and March of 2016.
BJS admitted it relied on information obtained from police watchdog groups and associations. “In addition to direct media alerts, BJS consulted existing open source lists of deaths with scopes that overlapped with the ARD program, including lists maintained by Fatal Encounters, The Guardian, Killed by Police, Gun Violence Archive, and The Washington Post…Of these, Fatal Encounters most closely matched the ARD program scope. Killed by Police included deaths associated with off-duty police officers who are not acting in an official agency capacity, and the ARD program excludes such deaths,” notes the BJS report. Did you catch the last line in the quote? The official BJS report doesn’t include officer-involved shootings which took place when an officer was off-duty.
In the year 2000, the Death In Custody Reporting Act was passed by Congress requiring quarterly reports of any person who dies while in custody. But one issue regarding compliance with DIRCA was that it was largely voluntary, meaning states that did not comply faced no punitive actions for not reporting. “You can’t fix what you can’t measure,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement implying the problem of deaths while in custody is a fixable one.
DIRCA expired in 2006, yet BJS continued collecting data, until 2013, when the law was passed again. The Wall Street Journal described the problems associated with the crucial collection of data. “Three sources of information about deaths caused by police—the FBI numbers, figures from the Centers for Disease Control and data at the Bureau of Justice Statistics—differ from one another widely in any given year or state,” writes the WSJ.
It’s not a difficult problem to solve but having three organizations report statistics with such discrepancies, to gather all the data and produce a reliable report, is a tall order in and of itself. Many activist groups are up in arms over the lack of an accurate federal database of ARDs and deaths while in custody. “More than 60 civil rights, LGBTQ and criminal justice organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU, signed a letter…demanding that the DOJ get tougher about transparency in policing,” according to one source.
Complicating matters, as late as 2014, a large majority of the nation’s nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies didn’t report any ARDs or deaths while in custody. Hence the work of the BJS is quite laborious. With compliance being voluntary, “without any real teeth” as one critic put it, and an astounding number of law enforcement agencies reporting no deaths at all, the BJS has resorted to combing through the newspapers so to speak.
Even though BJS surveyed police departments, it is believed that the number of individuals who die while in custody is much higher because “suicide, accident, and other manners of death” do not get reported by the mainstream media and cannot be gathered by scouring through information gathered from open sources.
The Miami Herald summarized how BJS arrived at its estimation. “The Bureau started with media reviews, which found 1,348 potential arrest-related deaths in the United States from June 1, 2015 through March 31, 2016. That came out to an average of about 135 arrest-related deaths per month. Those media reports identified 379 deaths in June, July and August 2015, but by reaching out to law enforcement agencies to confirm certain deaths the Bureau found there were actually 425 deaths during that period, a 12 percent difference. The Bureau of Justice Statistics projected the 1,900 arrest-related deaths for 2015 by relying on media reports and assuming the 12 percent difference across the year.”
It’s inconceivable that a country as big and powerful as the United States, and one which is capable of calculating a massive federal budget, cannot and will not force its police departments to report deaths of suspects, prisoners, and inmates in an effective manner. What do they have to hide, we ask? The answer would probably shock us all.