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Justice urged to improve rules for collecting data about deaths in police custody

Dozens of nonprofits called on the U.S. Department of Justice to strengthen its proposed rule outlining the process for police departments to collect and report data about people who die while in police custody.

In a letter sent in late August, the organizations responded to the DOJ’s proposal for implementing the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, which requires police departments to disclose details to the U.S. government about custodial deaths.

DICRA was signed into law in 2014 in response to a lack of reliable data on these deaths and DOJ is currently collecting comments on its implementation proposal published Aug. 4.

The comment period will close Oct. 3.

Groups urging Justice to strengthen its rule include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the United Methodist Church, the National Immigration Law Center, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Southern Poverty Law Center and many others.

In their letter, the organizations cite refer to deficiencies in the proposal that are a “departure” from DICRA, including:

• A lack of accountability to ensure state and local police are actually reporting the data.

• A failure to condition federal funding on adequate reporting.

• A disturbing reliance on media reports instead of police departments for data.

• A lack of clarity on how DICRA applies to federal agencies.

• An absence of a clear definition of the word “custody.”

The groups expressed specific concern about the lack of consequences for not reporting accurate data because “voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed."

The letter says only 224 of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported about 444 fatal police shootings to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2014, "though we have reason to believe that annual numbers of people killed by police exceed 1,000.”

“The loopholes in these regulations are cavernous,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “You can’t fix what you can’t measure."

Henderson added, "Police departments should report deaths in custody when they happen — it should be that simple. But these regulations make it clear that DOJ would rather bend over backward to accommodate police departments’ dysfunction or reluctance. There should be simple procedures so that police can provide complete and accurate data or face clear consequences for non-compliance.”

The groups also want the regulations to include a broader range of potential areas of police misconduct.

“To achieve complete and uniform data collection and reporting, the federal government must solicit disaggregated data that is reflective of all police-civilian encounters, including those encounters with people of color, women, and people with disabilities. Data concerning sexual assault and misconduct by law enforcement agents should also be collected and reported,” the letter stated.

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