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Civil Rights Groups Condemn DOJ’s Continued Delay in Enforcing the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013

8/07/18

Read a PDF of this statement here.

Civil Rights Groups Condemn DOJ’s Continued Delay in Enforcing the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013

Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 (DCRA) with strong bipartisan support, and it was signed into law in 2014, based on the need for accurate national data on the number of people killed by or in the custody of law enforcement in the United States, and the circumstances surrounding these deaths. However, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) – the agency charged with enforcing the law – recently announced that it would be delaying implementation of the law yet again, offering no explanation to the public as to why. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), ACLU, and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a letter today to DOJ expressing extreme disappointment with the continued lag in implementing this critical law.

DCRA mandates that state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding collect and report data on police-involved killings. The law also requires the Attorney General to adopt guidelines standardizing how state and local law enforcement comply with DCRA. In 2016, DOJ undertook a rigorous process to develop those guidelines, including two notice and comment periods where at least 96 organizations weighed in. From that process DOJ developed a strong compliance program, released in December 2016, that was intended to be enforced at the start of Fiscal Year 2018, but the Department has since decided to start the process of developing guidelines anew without sufficient justification.

“Developing effective strategies for ending the scourge of police-involved killings relies on accurate data that conveys the extent and circumstances of this catastrophic problem,” said Sonia Gill Hernandez, Senior Policy Counsel for the Policing Reform Campaign at LDF. “Yet the federal government still doesn’t have a complete accounting of how many Americans die at the hands of law enforcement each year, despite an act of Congress requiring it. DOJ must stop stalling and demand that both federal and state law enforcement begin providing this data immediately.”

“This delay is the latest irresponsible move by the Sessions Justice Department abdicating its responsibility as the nation’s top law enforcement agency for setting the tone for policing in America,” said Sakira Cook, Senior Counsel for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Every law enforcement agency should report deaths in custody when they happen. We cannot effectively address police killings without understanding the full extent of the problem. A bipartisan Congress made that clear four years ago when it passed the bill. Sessions needs to explain why he doesn’t think this is something that law enforcement should do.”

“It remains utterly unacceptable that the federal government does not keep track of how many people are killed by police, especially when it is required by law,” said Kanya Bennett, Senior Legislative Counsel at the ACLU. “That law is nearly four years old and the Department of Justice wants to further delay its enforcement. DOJ wants to keep in the dark the approximately 1,000 people, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, who die in police encounters each year. DOJ’s actions only reaffirm the Trump administration’s disdain for communities of color and their quest for justice.”

The letter calls on DOJ to incorporate prior recommendations – which were included in the last compliance program – into the final guidance, including requiring states to:

  • Proactively report all custodial and arrest-related deaths to DOJ, with the department then supplementing and evaluating the data provided with open source research aimed at verifying the completeness and accuracy of state-provided data; and
  • Set up compliance systems and submit a data collection plan to DOJ summarizing how it would collect the information that DCRA requires in a way that ensures maximum timeliness, accuracy, and completeness.

The three civil rights groups also urge DOJ to:

  • Outline how and when penalties will be applied if a state does not comply with DCRA reporting requirements, and adopt the financial penalty permitted by DCRA and proposed in the December 2016 compliance guidelines;
  • Clearly define what deaths must be reported to the federal government under DCRA to ensure standardized and thorough reporting from states; and
  • Develop guidelines for the collection of information on a deceased person’s disabilities.

This letter follows a January 2018 FOIA request submitted by the three civil rights groups asking for an update on implementation efforts. DOJ has yet to provide a final, exhaustive response to that request.

Read the letter here.

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Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.