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Who dies in police custody? Texas, California offer new tools to find out

A woman protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by Baton Rouge police. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

How many people die in our criminal justice system each year?

It turns out it is hard to tell, and it depends who you ask.

Following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and many others at the hands of the police, this lack of information has emerged as one of the most pressing issues in criminal justice reform. Reading media reports of these deaths would lead one to suspect that dying in police custody is a widespread problem. But hard data have been hard to come by. That’s why I believe new initiatives in Texas and California could be game changers, and deserve to be replicated in other states.

The federal government has acknowledged that federal data initiatives, which rely on law enforcement self-reporting, have failed to provide accurate information. In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that data collection under the Arrest-Related Deaths program, which was in place for most of the 2000s, identified only about half of the expected number of homicides by law enforcement officers.

The most comprehensive information has come from watchdog groups and media sites like Fatal Encounters and The Counted which track deaths in police encounters through open-source data mining of news accounts. But these websites are also incomplete. Fatal Encounters estimates it has tracked 62 percent of deaths since 2000. The Counted only began its tally in 2015. Further, watchdog sites cannot alone restore the trust in government institutions that has been lost in police shootings and lack of accountability.

Reliable information on deaths that occur during arrests and while in jail and prison is important. Such data allow us to identify problems in the criminal justice system and come up with solutions based on evidence. It also provides greater transparency and accountability, and ultimately can help gain communities’ trust.

Delegates listen to mothers of victims of police shootings during the DNC, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

In response to its own findings in 2015 and the national upheaval around homicides by law enforcement, BJS this month announced an improved nationwide data collection plan. The plan recognizes that “accurate and comprehensive accounting of deaths that occur during the process of arrest is critical for [law enforcement agencies] to demonstrate responsiveness to the citizens and communities they serve, transparency related to law enforcement tactics and approaches, and accountability for the actions of officers.”

State involvement is key

The improved data collection will provide better nationwide statistics. But states also have an important role in collecting and disseminating data.

State agencies and local law enforcement are more likely to respond to state directives and initiatives than to additional federal oversight. And programs to build public trust in local law enforcement and state agencies must come from within those institutions.

Two states are leaders in arrest-related and custodial death reporting – Texas and California. These two states have the nation’s largest incarcerated populations. Combined, they have more than 425,000 people locked up in prisons and jails. Each state has been collecting state custodial death data for decades. Under California and Texas law, law enforcement, jails and prisons must report to their state attorney general when a person dies in custody.

But just because the data existed didn’t mean they were publicly accessible – until recently. Last year, California’s attorney general debuted Open Justice. And this summer, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, I launched the Texas Justice Initiative. Both websites publish state custodial death data since 2005.

The Texas Justice Initiative

I created the Texas Justice Initiative after a friend sent me a spreadsheet with thousands of entries and more than 100 columns, a collection of more than 10 years of custodial death data assembled by the attorney general. This data set was virtually unknown to people except for a handful of journalists and advocates. I was surprised the information was technically publicly available, but not accessible in a meaningful way. Thus, I began to create a public, online interactive database of these deaths.

Users visiting our website can download the data and toggle through demographic data, cause of death and year options. We also included incident-level information, such as the name of the deceased and the official narrative provided in the official report.

Our project revealed stunning figures. Nearly 7,000 people died in police, jail and prison custody in 2005 to 2015. More than 1,900 of them were not convicted of a crime, many of whom were being held in jail pretrial. And black people were disproportionately represented, comprising 30 percent of the custodial deaths, but only around 12 percent of the Texas population.

California’s Open Justice

The California attorney general described Open Justice as “a tool that embraces transparency and data in the criminal justice system to strengthen public trust, enhance government accountability, and inform public policy.” In addition to custodial death information, Open Justice provides criminal justice statistics such as crime rates and arrest rates.

The Open Justice numbers are also jarring. An average of 684 people in California die each year in police encounters and jail and prison custody. Thirty-four percent of the people who died were not convicted of a crime. Black people are six percent of California’s population, but represented 24 percent of deaths.

Since we launched the Texas Justice Initiative, I’ve received responses from people across the nation calling for other states to provide similar information publicly. I’ve also received emails from people seeking to correct information about people they knew who are in the database.

The Texas and California collections and publications are not perfect, but together they provide a guide for other states to improve arrest-related and custodial death data collection. As other states follow Texas’ and California’s lead, they should publish the data in ways that allow for public engagement, greater transparency and data verification.

Better data – which means broad, detailed and accurate information – are vital to realizing the changes our institutions so desperately need. With more accurate numbers and information on custodial deaths, we can begin to identify who is dying in police custody and why, and also address the jail and prison conditions that contribute to high mortality, such as access to health care and the incarceration of people with mental health issues.

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