Public deserves all the facts on police and jail deaths

Longshoremen listen to speakers protesting police brutality during a May 1 rally at the Port of Oakland. Dave Maass writes that the California Legislature must prioritize death-in-custody transparency.
Longshoremen listen to speakers protesting police brutality during a May 1 rally at the Port of Oakland. Dave Maass writes that the California Legislature must prioritize death-in-custody transparency. Bay Area News Group

It took three weeks for the people of Maryland to learn that Freddie Gray’s death from a spinal injury while confined inside a police van had been ruled a homicide. That wait helped fuel riots in the streets.

Here in California, now is the time for the public and Legislature to ask whether law enforcement agencies can be more transparent about deaths in their custody.

The top-line numbers are harrowing. In 2014, 679 people died in police, prison and jail custody in California; 150 of those deaths happened during the arrest process and at least 88 involved a police shooting. Almost 70 people committed suicide in jails and prisons, while in more than 150 cases the cause of death is still listed as “pending.”

On paper, the status quo looks pretty good. Any time a person dies in police custody or in a jail or prison, state law sets a 10-day deadline for the agency in charge to submit “all facts” in its possession to the state Attorney General’s Office. The law explicitly states that these filings are public record.

But as a journalist who spent more than three years investigating the San Diego County jail system – which at one time had one of the highest death rates among California’s largest jails – I’ve seen how this law has been allowed to atrophy to the point where agencies hardly take it seriously.

One would expect that “all facts” would include, at the very least, a brief written narrative of the circumstances surrounding the detainee’s death. One would expect that these records would be available on exactly the 10th day after the death.

In reality, the state attorney general has reduced these reporting requirements to a single sheet of paper with a series of check-mark boxes that provide only the most basic information. It can take weeks, if not months, to get the data under the California Public Records Act.

When I recently requested these forms for March, the Attorney General’s Office told me I would need to wait until summer 2016. I’m still waiting for the legal justification for withholding these records.

When you do get the death data, you find that there’s little to no auditing. It has been 10 years since the Attorney General’s Office analyzed the death data; that four-page report concluded that in-custody deaths were on a steep rise, but “due to limited resources,” the agency wasn’t able to dig further.

Relying on other means, our reporting team uncovered cases in which sheriff’s deputies killed mentally ill inmates through excessive force, ignored obvious signs of suicidal behavior and, in one particularly heartbreaking instance, left an inmate they knew had swallowed meth to die in his cell, despite his screams that his stomach was on fire.

Investigative reporters know the tricks to get these records, but families do not. Time and time again, I’ve spoken to relatives who were told literally nothing about how their loved ones died.

As the Legislature considers a wide range of reforms in response to police killings of unarmed civilians – including anti-racial profiling measures and the increased use of body cams – I urge them to prioritize death-in-custody transparency.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s Assembly Bill 619 is a start. The bill adds new categories of information that law enforcement agencies will be required to produce, and orders the attorney general to issue an annual report and to begin publishing the data online. This is especially important since the Attorney General’s Office says it will not be collecting as much arrest-related death information this year due to a change in federal reporting requirements.

Lawmakers should strengthen this legislation. They can start by moving up the 2018 date when it would take effect. With hundreds of people dying each year, there’s no reason to wait.

Dave Maass was a staff writer at San Diego CityBeat from 2009 to 2013.