Police depts should accurately report killings or lose federal funding - human rights groups

© Adam Anderson
The Department of Justice should withhold federal criminal justice grants from any law enforcement agency that does not report comprehensive data on civilian deaths in police custody, a group of 67 organizations says.

In a letter sent to top Justice Department (DoJ) officials, including US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the organizations offered several critiques to an August 4 proposal from the DoJ regarding implementation of the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act (DICRA). The law, passed in 2014, aims to boost law enforcement requirements for disclosing custodial deaths to the federal government.

The groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — said the proposal includes  that depart from DICRA. 

The "deficiencies" in the new DoJ proposal include "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; and the absence of a clear definition of the word 'custody.'"

Currently, reporting data on deaths of civilians while in police custody is voluntary for the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the US, leading to heavily inaccurate federal data on such killings and a reliance on comprehensive data on police killings collected by news outlets, such as the Washington Post and the Guardian.

The DoJ proposal places responsibility for data collection and reporting of police-custody deaths on the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which would collect media accounts of police killings, then send a quarterly form to law enforcement agencies to confirm, correct, or add to the record of deaths.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement that the federal government's ongoing reliance on newsrooms "is especially problematic," and that the DoJ must strengthen accountability policies for local law enforcement agencies within its proposal.

"The loopholes in these regulations are cavernous," said Henderson.

"You can’t fix what you can’t measure. 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 backwards 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."

In the letter, the groups called on the DoJ to enforce DICRA provisions that give "the Attorney General the discretion to subject states that do not report deaths in custody to a ten percent reduction of" funding under a federal grant program that allocates around $280 million a year to US law enforcement agencies. 

"The financial penalty is critical to successful implementation of DICRA as voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed."

The Guardian has reported 709 killings by US police in 2016, while the Washington Post has counted 626 fatal police shootings so far this year.