Congress Is Finally Going to Make Local Law Enforcement Report How Many People They Kill

The Death in Custody Reporting Act hasn’t had much success tracking these incidents in the past. Will it help this time around?

Nick Otto/ZUMA

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


Over the weekend, tens of thousands of marchers rallied against police brutality, standing in solidarity with families who have lost loved ones to police violence. With public scrutiny zeroed in on deaths at the hands of law enforcement, one thing is noticeably missing: a federal record of just how many people die in police custody each year.

This, however, could be changing. Last week, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013. Currently awaiting Obama’s signature, it mandates that states receiving federal criminal justice assistance grants report, by gender and race, all deaths that occur in law enforcement custody, including any while a person is being detained or arrested. This would include events like the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, says Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a sponsor of the bill, in an interview with Mother Jones.

The bill also mandates that federal law enforcement agencies annually gather and report these deaths to the US attorney general, who in turn has two years to analyze the data, determine if and how it can be used to reduce the number of such deaths, and file a report to Congress. 

The bill is backed by groups like the NAACP, which argue that it will increase accountability and transparency. The process it envisions would collect more data than the FBI’s existing Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which only tallies what are considered “justifiable” homicides by police, a designation that can criminalize victims of police killings. As DIY databases have cropped up—the Killed by Police Facebook page, for instance, gets its stats by aggregating news stories—the bill could establish a more accurate and official repository.

But if past measures to collect similar data are any indication, it’s going to be a long time before Washington reliably keeps a comprehensive database of all citizens who die at the hands of the police. Congress has tried to enact similar laws before: In 1994, a statute passed under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act mandated that the Department of Justice annually gather, report, and publish a summary of public data counting uses of “excessive” force, but nothing much came of the plan. At some point the task of collecting data fell to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a professional organization. They maintained a database until 2001, but have not updated it since. Twenty years later, we have no clear understanding of how many people have been killed by police. 

Older versions of the Death in Custody Reporting Act have also struggled to compel comprehensive data. The bill passed last week is the reauthorization of the original act, passed in 2000. Initially created in reaction to prison confinement deaths—lawmakers inserted a provision requiring tallies of arrest-related deaths in 2003—that first version accomplished little: Several years passed before states started sending in data, and the bill expired shortly thereafter, in 2006, without a single report having been released. Since then, the provision requiring state counts of arrest-related deaths has stayed on the books—but reporting has never been enforced. Many local law enforcement agencies provide incomplete data, and the Justice Department has published no comprehensive reports in more than a decade.

The bill that passed last week aims to force reporting by tying law enforcement funding to cooperation: States that fail to report police-involved killings can lose up to 10 percent of their federal law enforcement grants. However, it’s up to the attorney general to mete out fines. “Hopefully there will be better compliance and enforcement than existed then, and also more cooperation,” Blumenthal says. “There’s certainly more awareness now about the importance of this data, and much more focus on it.”

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate