We know that too many people die at the hands of law enforcement in America. But we don't know exactly how many. In fact, the Justice Department has failed to account for roughly half of all arrest-related deaths annually.
According to an internal report released last year, the Justice Department has missed nearly half of deaths by law enforcement because of a "lack of a standardized mode for data collection, definitions, scope, agency participation, and the availability of resources."
The Daily Beast, which broke the news, reported that the Arrest Related Death program only captured 453 law enforcement homicides annually, despite estimating 928 of such deaths each year.
The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics started the Arrest Related Death (ARD) program in 2003 in response to the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000. The program was "designed to be a national census of civilian deaths when the event causing the death occurs during an interaction with state or local law enforcement." States are required to submit data to the program, including the name, age, race, sex, and circumstances of each death. But that hasn't happened, at least not like it should've.
While 36 states submitted the ARD data each year, many states, as well as the District of Columbia, did not. For several years, Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming didn't report the necessary information. Georgia never reported to the program at all.
As the Bureau of Justice Statistics' report noted, the ARD program relies on voluntary reporting from states, which significantly limits the program. To improve the program, the report suggested "providing a more centralized method for identifying arrest-related deaths and providing incentives for law enforcement agencies to confirm or identify deaths that occur during the process of arrest and to provide information about them." The report also recommended finding "ways to standardize the data collection methodologies to improve the reliability and validity of capturing eligible cases and overall data quality."
But there are some more obvious improvements too. By 2011, the ARD program was getting more accurate, closer to the estimated number of law enforcement homicides. How did those numbers better reflect reality? The Daily Beast explained: "By simply using search engines to find media reports of law enforcement homicides and other arrest-related deaths, the program became more effective. Why it took eight years for the Justice Department to use Google is anyone’s guess."
In 2014, a new version of the Death In Custody Reporting Act (DICRA) was signed into law, allowing the attorney general to punish states that don't cooperate. If a state fails to report police killings, that state could face "a 10-percent reduction of the funds that would otherwise be allocated for that fiscal year," according to the law.
However, as The Daily Beast reported, "There is no indication that this punishment mechanism has ever been implemented." That fact has led the NAACP and the ACLU and 65 other civil rights organizations to urge Attorney General Loretta Lynch to use the 10-percent reductions in funding more often. "It will be difficult for DOJ to get an accurate picture of trends in custodial deaths if state and local law enforcement agencies are not held accountable for collecting data after a death occurs," the letter said. Because of that, the groups wrote, "The financial penalty is critical to successful implementation of DICRA as voluntary reporting programs on police-community encounters have failed."
With that said, The Daily Beast pointed out that enforcing the 10-percent reduction still might not be enough: "The funds do not make up significant portions of law enforcement budgets, and are designed primarily for wishlist extras like body cameras, money for indigent criminal defense, and improving mental health services for those caught up in the criminal justice system."
There's not an easy way to fix the problem of documenting arrest related deaths, let alone fix the problem of arrest related deaths in the first place. Still, something needs to be done.