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"We have reached a state of crisis with our police-community relations, and solutions can only come once we have solid data," said ACLU's Kanya Bennett. (Photo: Alisdare Hickson/flickr/cc)

Feds' Proposal on Tracking Deaths in Custody Shows Lack of Desire to Change 'Status Quo in Policing'

 DOJ proposal includes shifting reporting requirement from state to federal authorities, and rights groups say that's a mistake

Andrea Germanos

It may seem that the simplest way to gather accurate information about deaths in police custody is for the police departments themselves to collect the data.

But that's not the how the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) proposes to implement the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act (DICRA), signed into law in 2014, and that's a real problem, according to scores of organizations.

In a letter sent Monday to the DOJ, 96 groups including the ACLU, Amnesty International USA, Government Accountability Project, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights outline what they see as major flaws in the proposal.

Among them: it wrongly shifts the reporting requirement from state to federal authorities. That authority, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, will rely on an "inadequate method"—the Arrest-Related Deaths Program, which uses publicly available information. That means that investigative projects undertaken by the Guardian and the Washington Post are the "best national sources" for the data, but that puts the key data on lives lost at the risk of potentially dwindling national interest and media resources.

Further problematic, the groups write, is that the proposal fails to fully clarify what is meant by "custody," and the fact that data is also needed in confrontations with the police in community encounters such as traffic stops.

The proposal also fails to mention "penalties for noncompliance," but that is "critical for successful implementation of DICRA as voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed," the letter states. Citing reporting by the Guardian and Washington Post, it continues: "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 peopled killed by police exceed 1,000."

According to Kanya Bennett, ACLU legislative counsel, "We have reached a state of crisis with our police-community relations, and solutions can only come once we have solid data."

“When the Department of Justice disregards DICRA so that states do not have to be the primary entity collecting and reporting data, the federal government sends the message that it is not serious about changing the status quo in policing. These circumstances are likely to create future situations like we saw in Ferguson and other cities, unless the federal government provides real oversight and accountability of the state and local law enforcement that it provides millions of dollars to annually," she said.

Many of the same groups behind this letter wrote to the DOJ in August to express concern over the proposal.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said at the time, "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."

Monday is the last day for the comment period on the DOJ proposal.

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