Civil Rights Groups Push Justice Dept. for More Stringent Reports of Deaths in Police Custody
August 30, 2016
By Andrea Noble – The Washington Times
Civil rights activists and even FBI Director James Comey have said it’s ridiculous that there is no government database to track the number of people fatally shot by police or who die in law enforcement custody. So when Congress passed a law to revive the tracking of such deaths in 2014, it was widely cheered.
But advocacy groups now say the Justice Department’s plan to comply with the law isn’t living up to their hopes.
A coalition of 67 groups this week urged the Justice Department to strengthen how it plans to implement the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act. The groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP, say the proposal lacks accountability to ensure state and local police are actually reporting the data; fails to make adequate reporting of the data a condition federal funding; relies too heavily on media reports instead of police departments for the data; and lacks a clear definition of what is considered “in custody.”
“The loopholes in these regulations are cavernous,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the 67 signers of the letter submitted as commentary on the proposal. “You can’t fix what you can’t measure. Police departments should report deaths in custody when they happen; it should be that simple. But these regulations make it clear that DOJ would rather bend over backwards to accommodate police departments’ dysfunction or reluctance. There should be simple procedures so that police can provide complete and accurate data or face clear consequences for non-compliance.”
The Justice Department published the proposal in the federal register this month for review. The public has until Oct. 3 to submit comments on the proposal.
The proposal indicates that 19,450 state and local law enforcement agencies and approximately 685 medical examiner’s or coroner’s officers will be affected by the act.
The proposal indicates that the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in collecting the data, will rely on “open sources to identify eligible cases,” and will then follow up by issuing data requests to law enforcement agencies involved to obtain specific information about the deaths. The advocacy groups were critical of the decision to put the responsibility of collecting the data on the BJS rather than requiring the law enforcement agencies to report the incidents. Noting the work that both The Washington Post and the Guardian have dedicated to tallying police shootings and in-custody deaths in recent years since fatal police use of force has come under increased scrutiny, the groups say that thorough media coverage of the incidents is not guaranteed to continue.
“Certain media outlets have been critical to understanding police-civilian encounters over the past year, but it is unlikely that national media attention and resources can remain on policing indefinitely,” the letter states. “Thus, relying on media accounts and statistics is an inadequate method of collecting data to determine the circumstances under which people die while in law enforcement custody.”
The letter also notes that the DOJ proposal does not discuss any penalties for those law enforcement agencies that do not comply and provide information about fatal incidents, despite the fact that the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act (DICRA) gives the attorney general the discretion to reduce federal grant award by 10 percent if they do not comply.
“The financial penalty is critical to successful implementation of DICRA as voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed,” the letter states. “Reportedly, only 224 of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported approximately 444 fatal police-shootings to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2014 though we have reason to believe that annual numbers of people killed by police exceeds 1,000.”