It is unclear how many people pass away while in police custody every year. A recent report from NPR has even gone so far as to call both this reality and the lack of accurate, publicly-accessible information associated with it a crisis in the United States. The organization notes that statistics on the subject are difficult to find and often unreliable, pointing out that even the federal government’s statistics may massively undercount how many fatal incidents of this nature occur annually. In 2021, for example, there are allegations that statistics on this subject undercounted roughly 1,000 deaths.
The issue, the report claims, is a lack of transparency. Federal agencies have said they are trying to combat this, and there have even been executive orders signed by President Biden to increase transparency and accountability. But critics still say that far too many people are dying and that it isn’t clear how it’s happening or how to prevent it from happening in the future. This is concerning because the crisis could continue to spiral out of control unless the issue is addressed head-on and fast.
The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act
Ideally, the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) is supposed to help gather data. It requires law enforcement agencies to report their information to federal agencies. The data then goes to the U.S. Attorney General. The attorney general should also be provided with details like the location where a death took place, the time that it happened and any other important circumstances that can help to shed light on why it occurred. However, it’s unclear if reporting is occurring as it should, as an official report on the subject has yet to be released.
Most of those who pass away in custody haven’t been convicted
To compound the issue, most people who pass away while they’re in a local jail have not yet been convicted of any wrongdoing. They may have been arrested and accused of a crime, but there’s no conviction backing up a suspicion that a crime ever occurred. Police officers could have made a mistaken arrest or be in the process of investigating someone who has grounds for a legitimate offense. But, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics – which examined the reported 1,200 fatal cases from 2019 – around 77% of those who died in police custody hadn’t been convicted.
Unless things turn around, deaths that occur within a system plagued by a lack of transparency are going to continue to be an issue. The families of those who have passed away in police custody, therefore, need to be aware that they have legal rights and may be in a position to hold others responsible for their loss. Seeking legal guidance is a good way to gain greater clarity in this regard.