DOJ urged to push harder on reports of deaths in police custody

A coalition of 67 groups including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and the NAACP is urging the US attorney general to withhold federal funds from local police chiefs unless they fully report deaths that occur while suspects are in police custody.

Mel Evans/AP/File
Holding a photograph of her son, Beverly Smith, mother of Alonzo Smith, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, whose death the D.C. medical examiner’s office has ruled a homicide after he was found Nov. 1, 2014, unconscious and handcuffed in the custody of armed security guards at a Washington apartment building, speaks during a service attended by mothers of slain children, including Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, and Rev. Al Sharpton, at Hope Memorial Baptist church Sunday, July 17, 2016, in Elizabeth, N.J.

A recent uptick in highly publicized deaths in police custody in cities around the country has prompted protests and difficult questions about race, justice, and police from around the country.

It is also prompting calls for the Department of Justice to improve its system for recording such deaths, which many say is lacking.

A coalition of 67 human rights and civil liberties groups is calling on the government to strengthen rules about reporting deaths in officer custody – and to punish police departments that don't. 

“There should be simple procedures so that police can provide complete and accurate data or face clear consequences for non-compliance,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil rights coalition based in Washington, D.C., said in a press release.

This coalition, which includes the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the United Methodist Church, the National Immigration Law Center, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, wants to replace an older model under which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has asked police departments to report such deaths voluntarily. The "opt-out" clause in this system means that these counts can be off by up to half, Jon Swaine reported for The Guardian.

Another law, passed in 2014, allows the Department's head, Loretta Lynch, to reduce federal funding by 10 percent for any departments that don't report, but this law has been largely ignored. 

Last month, the government announced plans to begin sending a form each quarter to the nearly 20,000 police agencies around the country, asking for the number of arrest-related deaths in that department. The form is described as a "pilot study to determine the most efficient and comprehensive means of identifying arrest-related deaths and collecting information about individuals who die in the custody of law enforcement."

The Department of Justice also sends each department a list of media-reported deaths for confirmation, with spaces to add deaths in custody not reported by local or national news media. 

But Mr. Henderson criticized the government's use of data sets collected by The Guardian and the The Washington Post, saying, "It’s the government that should be providing journalists with transparent data, not the other way around."

In a letter, the rights groups said the government must develop the resources to monitor deaths in police custody on its own. 

“Certain media outlets have been critical to understanding police-civilian encounters over the past year, but it is unlikely that national media attention and resources can remain on policing indefinitely,” the letter says. 

These groups want the Department of Justice to make it clear that this is a priority by cutting funding for departments that don't report. 

"The financial penalty is critical to successful implementation of [the 2014 law] as voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed," the letter stated. 

The letter from rights groups came in response to a Bureau of Justice Statistics request for comment on its enforcement of this law. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to DOJ urged to push harder on reports of deaths in police custody
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today