Death In Custody: What Is The Truth?
There’s been a fair amount of speculation here and elsewhere that law enforcement in the United States operates as a rogue paramilitary assault force that roams the streets killing innocent civilians. While it is true that like every occupation there are cops who murder, this is in fact a very rare occurrence. It may help to set aside the rhetoric for a bit and look at some statistics.
The Department of Justice maintains two databases tracking deaths in custody, one by the FBI focused primarily on officer deaths and detainee deaths where the officer was culpable, and a much more comprehensive one by the Bureau of Justice Statistics through the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program (DCRP). The DCRP counts represent the first national measurement of all types of deaths that occurred in the process of arrest. The collection of these counts was mandated by the federal Death in Custody Reporting Act (Public Law 106-297). All States were required under the act to submit a record of any death that occurred “in the process of arrest” as a condition of receiving federal correctional grants.
Within the BJS database is a document called Arrest-Related Deaths in the United States 2003-2005 that examines arrest related deaths in detail for almost the entire United States for those three years (the 2006 numbers are still not up, blame GW for budget cuts).
How many arrests are there annually (excluding traffic stops)?
2003 – 13,639,479
2004 – 13,938,071
2005 – 14,094,186
Total – 41,671,736
How many total deaths in custody occurred (all causes)?
2003 – 622
2004 – 677
2005 – 705
Total – 2,002
How many were police homicides (death at the hand of an officer, justifiable or not)?
2003 – 366
2004 – 365
2005 – 364
Total – 1,095
The actual incidence of arrest-associated in-custody deaths is then 0.0026%. (Intranets has cited a rate of 0.1% - if there is a source for that, please provide a citation.)
Of these homicide deaths, what were the detainees doing (Table 7, Page16)?
Arrestee behavior during arrest
Used weapon to threaten/assault officers 872 (80.1%)
Threatened officers 681 (62.6%)
Tried to flee, escape arrest 392 (36.0%)
Resisted arrest 311 (28.6%)
Appeared intoxicated 199 (18.3%)
Grabbed, hit or fought with officers 184 (16.9%)
Any of the above 1,058 (97.2%)
Two or more of the above 829 (75.7%)
What weapons were used by the officers in these homicides (Table 7, Page16)?
Weapon used by officers to cause the death:
Firearm (any) 1,049 (96.3%)
Handgun 912 (83.7%)
Rifle/shotgun 186 (17.1%)
Unspecified firearm 13 (1.2%)
Nightstick or baton 1 (0.1%)
Taser/conducted-energy device 2 (0.2%)
Other 11 (1.0%)
And what was happening to the police during that same time (Page 3)?
Assaults on officers:
2003 – 57,841
2004 – 59,373
2005 – 57,546
Total – 174,760
Thus we see that over this three year period there were 1,095 homicide deaths in custody, the vast majority of which involved direct threat to the officers. In that same time period, nearly 175,000 officers were assaulted. The number of people killed by law enforcement constituted less than one percent of the total number of people who assaulted officers.
If the behavior of law enforcement is anything, it is extraordinarily restrained. The wonder is that more people are not killed. Speaking frankly, if I am being assaulted and have a gun in my possession, the assailant should not expect to survive the encounter.
And as long as we’re feeling sympathy for people who die violently, please remember that over the same three years a total of 380 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty. Died in their effort to protect you and me, leaving behind their spouses, children and loved ones. If I’m going to mourn anyone, I’ll feel most for those who died doing good works and, call me hard-hearted, something less so for those who died committing crimes. (Full sympathy, of course, to all innocents who are killed for any reason.)