Editorials

A full accounting of people killed by police, at last

Students from Washington D.C.’s “School Without Walls” lie down on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House on Wednesday  after walking out of class to participate in a “die-in.” The students chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot,” as part of their protest against shootings by police.
Students from Washington D.C.’s “School Without Walls” lie down on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House on Wednesday after walking out of class to participate in a “die-in.” The students chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot,” as part of their protest against shootings by police. The Associated Press

There are many apt adjectives that could be used to describe the current Congress, but “do-nothing” shouldn’t be one of them. Last week, it did something of actual significance by passing the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, authored by Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott.

The bill, signed by President Barack Obama on Thursday, means that for the first time, the nation will start a real accounting of the civilians killed by police. At last.

This legislation, H.R. 1447, updates a law from 2000 that required states to report to the U.S. Department of Justice how many people died while in law enforcement custody and the manner and circumstances of the deaths.

Although at the time, the law was focused primarily on people dying while in jail or prison, it also required reporting of suspects who died or were killed in the process of being arrested. People like Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot to death by police in Ferguson, Mo., this summer; Eric Garner, who died after a New York cop used a chokehold on him; and Parminder Singh Shergill, a mentally ill Gulf War vet who was shot to death by Lodi police in January.

The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics had only started to compile this important data when the law expired in 2006. At the time, it was like a tree falling in an empty forest; no one heard – or cared, if they had. Scott has tried to re-authorize the law several times since then, but he couldn’t get support. The bill might have suffered the same ignoble fate this year, if not for the eruptions over officer-involved deaths.

In the ensuing public debate, the lack of good data on arrest-related killings in the U.S. became shockingly apparent. This new version of the 2000 law will help the country start to put together an accurate picture of what many people suspect is a growing trend.

Although the law expired in 2006, most of the agencies that started collecting this data continued to do so. That includes California. The bad news is that many states simply never bothered, leaving the information the Bureau of Justice Statistics collected with gaping holes.

Still, even that incomplete data confirms that more people are dying during their initial contact with police.

A BJS report from 2011 found that of 4,813 people who died during arrest in the six-year period ending in 2009, about 60 percent, or 2,931, were killed by law enforcement. The report found a persistent rise in people killed by police during the arrest process from 376 in 2003 to 497 in 2009.

That trend has played out in California as well. According to data provided by Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office to The Bee, 1,068 people died while being arrested between 2004 and the first part of 2014. The numbers have steadily increased each year during that period.

There are some key changes between the new Death in Custody Reporting Act and the 2000 version. Most notably, it has teeth. The reason that the first incarnation failed is because there was no real enforcement. If a state chose not to report, as New York, Florida and Illinois did, there was no penalty. By contrast, the new law allows the U.S. attorney general to withhold grants from states that refuse to comply.

Another notable change is that H.R. 1447 requires the U.S. attorney general to report back to Congress on the data no more than two years from now, and include strategies for reducing deaths. In other words, the report should not reside in some computer file, never to be opened.

California’s attorney general is embracing the spirit of H.R. 1447. According to a spokesman, Harris plans to make death in custody data available to the public as well.

The passage of Rep. Scott’s bill ought to hearten the people who participated in protests this fall. Congress seems to have listened, and done something about it. People who criticized the protests have a stake in the legislation, too. Hard numbers will inform future discussion. That is the one positive development to come of this year’s high-profile officer-involved deaths.

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