Overlooked in the political tumult of the so-called “Cromnibus” keep-the-government-open spending package Wednesday night was the rebirth of a federal law called The Death in Custody Reporting Act. This measure was designed to supply public officials (and journalists and advocates) with statistics on the number of people killed each year in the United States at the hands of police officers, prison officials, or other law enforcement agents.
The act passed by unanimous consent in the Senate – it passed the House of Representatives exactly one year ago – and now goes to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature. Like its predecessor, enacted in 2000 and allowed to expire in 2006, the law requires federal agents and officials in every state to report quarterly to the Justice Department “the death of any person who is detained, under arrest, or is in the process of being arrested, is en route to be incarcerated, or is incarcerated.” Each report must include “the name, gender, race, ethnicity, and age of the deceased; the date, time, and location of the death; the law enforcement agency” involved and a description of how the death occurred.
The Justice Department, in turn, would be required to try to ascertain trends from the data it has collected and report those trends to Congress. Do certain jurisdictions have more deaths than others? Are there racial patterns? How do police training protocols influence the statistics? These patterns, in turn, could help shape public policy on a topic that Americans have discovered this year they know very little about: how (and how many of) their fellow citizens die at the hands of law enforcement officials.
States failing to comply with the reporting requirements could be stripped of up to 10 percent of the federal money they receive for local law enforcement purposes (through so-called Byrne grants, which account for about $500 million a year).
Bobby Scott, the original sponsor of the Reporting Act in the House, has been introducing it regularly since 2006, when an earlier version of the law expired (the measure had passed the House four times since then, each with over 400 votes). “People are calling this the ‘Ferguson Bill,’ ” Scott told The Marshall Project on Friday. “But we’ve been pushing this for much longer than that. Actually, it was originally in response to a lack of data about deaths that happen in prisons. We were trying to have a discussion about prison violence, when we started realizing, how do we have a discussion about this when there aren’t any facts?”
Unlike its predecessor, the new measure contains no sunset provision. It will not expire. But, according to Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News and Review, that is no guarantee that it will be obeyed. Burghart maintains the website “Fatal Encounters,” which has been one of a handful of crowd-sourced attempts at a comprehensive national database of people killed during interactions with police. It would “surprise me,” he says, “if the DOJ collects comprehensive and useful information.” When the law expired in 2006, he told us Friday, fewer than 750 of the 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies had reported this data, “and the results were ‘anonymized’ so that independent researchers couldn’t verify the data.” He pointed out that, “at minimum, it will be three years before the DoJ starts publishing results.”