U.S. NewsPolice Misconduct


New report shows miscount of in-custody police deaths

A new report shows the Department of Justice does not have an accurate count of in-custody deaths across the country.
Posted at 9:17 PM, Mar 22, 2023

"In your custody, in your care" is a common phrase for police officers. But controversial deaths at the hands of law enforcement, like Irvo Otieno in Virginia or Tyre Nichols in Memphis, highlight a longstanding problem in policing — in-custody deaths, or suspects who lose their life or are killed after they are arrested or imprisoned. And a new report shows the U.S. government doesn't actually know how often this happens.   

Bree Spencer is the senior program director for justice at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

"The United States government should be able to tell us how many people die in custody every year, and they cannot. And that is a moral and practical failure. And it's unacceptable," Spencer said. 

Her organization, along with the Project on Government Oversight, call these in-custody deaths a "national crisis" and claim "the government potentially undercounted deaths in custody by nearly 1,000" in 2021.  

"I fundamentally do not understand why we have decided to allow law enforcement to abdicate any kind of responsibility for getting accurate, complete transparency, transparent data up to the federal government and out to the public," Spencer said. 

Irvo Otieno's family at a news conference.

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The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, signed into law in 2013, mandates this data be collected and compiled by the Department of Justice and then submitted to Congress in an annual report.  

But at a Congressional hearing last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland responding to this report, said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the law and its progress.  

"I have to say I'm not familiar with the specifics of DCRA, if it provides for public reporting of the numbers we have, then we should be providing it. I don't know whether it does or not," Garland said. 

Last year, family members who’ve lost loved ones in custody testified on Capitol Hill. David Janovsky, who also worked on the report, says reforms can’t be made without accurate data.   

"I think where this data would be powerful is being able to drill down into specific situations and notice patterns. And once you've identified patterns, then you can identify ways to address them," Janovsky said. 

The FBI has a similar mandate to collect data on police shootings nationally, but so far hasn’t released its findings.