DOJ Should Improve Requirements For How Death In Police Custody Data Is Collected

The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act was signed into law in 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice is now proposing how it will mandate reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies across the country.

If someone dies in police custody, the public has a right to know.

It may sound simple, but news outlets and media investigations have shown that is not always the case.


With “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post is tracking the number of people who have been shot and killed by police. The Guardian is also keeping track of these deaths with their project, “The Counted.”

Why are news organizations keeping track and becoming the go-to place for this information and data? Because current reporting is not sufficient. According to an FBI report, in 2014, only 224 of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported around 444 fatal police shootings to the FBI.

It is unacceptable for the government to rely on media organizations to provide this information to the public. While the organizations that have stepped up and gathered the data are doing it well, what happens if the funding for these projects ends? It is also risky. The media is gathering data from what it has available to them, which is limited information compared to what the government has access to and could require law enforcement agencies to provide.

Having tried to use the data law enforcement agencies voluntarily report to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS, I know the frustration first hand. Sometimes you find data but sometimes you don’t. If you want to know how many people were shot and killed by law enforcement in a particular county, you may be forced to ask and then search through individual agencies records, compiling the data into your own database.

The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, DICRA, was supposed to help fix this reporting issue, among other things. The U.S. Department of Justice has now proposed how it will implement DICRA and is accepting public comment on the proposal until October 3. Click here to read more and how to comment.

The proposal has a number of weaknesses though and in a letter, the Society of Professional Journalists and 66 other organizations are asking the DOJ to strengthen its proposal for how law enforcement agencies will be required to report data detailing the number and how individuals die while in police custody.

Some of the concerns outlined in the letter include:

  • A lack of consequences for not reporting accurate data, including detailing possible penalties for non-reporting or linking federal funding to reporting compliance
  • The indication that BJS will rely on publicly available information “open-source review,” including news reports, for the data collection
  • Lack of details on how federal law enforcement agencies will comply with DICRA

Click here to read the letter.

As mentioned above, some news organizations have made a commitment to tracking how many people are being shot and killed by law enforcement. While the work being done by these news organizations is detailed and well-researched, is this enough?

Shouldn’t the media and in turn the public be able to easily obtain data from the government about the individuals being killed by law enforcement, public employees, with salaries funded by tax dollars? Not to mention the fact that close to $4 billion in federal grants is awarded annually to local and state law enforcement agencies. Doesn’t this make what the agencies do, also the public’s businesses?

I think so and so does SPJ.

Do you agree? Let the DOJ know. Below are some ways to share your thoughts on social media.

  • Here are some deficiencies in @TheJusticeDept’s proposal for collecting data on deaths in police custody: @spj_tweets
  • .@TheJusticeDept has a proposal for collecting data on deaths in police custody. Here’s why it must be strengthened:
  • Gov. should provide journalists w/ #transparent data about deaths in police custody not other way around: @spj_tweets

Lynn Walsh is the current President-Elect for SPJ. She manages and leads the #NBC7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh, or contact her via email:

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


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