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The big-data struggle to accurately report deaths in police custody

Deaths in police custody present complex challenges for big data projects.


Deron Dalton


This has been the year of policing the police.

In 2015, activists and journalists documented and shared moments of police violence, while new efforts emerged to report comprehensible data on civilians who were killed by the police in the U.S., to provide solutions to related failures of government agencies.

The movement to report data on police killings—the ones that happen out in the open and increasingly on video—has its vast challenges. But there’s another issue that remains both harder to grasp and far more complex: deaths in police custody.

“There are thousands of jails and detention centers and they each have their own policies and procedures of gathering the data.”

Sandra Bland, Natasha McKenna, Kindra Chapman, Freddie Gray, and Terrell Day—all died in police custody this year, sparking campaigns and outcry among Black Lives Matter supporters. Like most deaths in police custody, each of these cases poses its own set of challenges in unearthing what really happened.

Black civilians are disproportionately killed by police, and some of these cases clearly happened in custody. Others died in police custody under questionable circumstances classified as death from self-inflicted injury or natural causes.

Shaun King, a former writer at Daily Kos who is now the senior justice writer at New York Daily News, reports on complex narratives of racial justice, police violence, mass incarceration, and the criminal justice system.

In September, video was released of McKenna’s death in police custody. Officers, dressed in bio-hazard suits, restrained her; she later died in restraints after being Tasered four times.

In response, King called for the data to reflect deaths in police custody. The data is out there, he said. It’s just not available for public scrutiny.

“There are thousands of jails and detention centers and they each have their own policies and procedures of gathering the data,” King told the Daily Dot. The problem lies in the vastness of the U.S. correctional system, which is the largest in the world, according to the American Jail Association.

“Even if we were dealing with a just, fair system … it would be really complicated,” King said, “but what we learned is that, in each city and state, there are horrendous stories of abuse and corruption, and digging for truth in those stories is so hard.”

Prison employees “have no incentive to talk,” King added. “Prisoners are scared to death because they are in a controlled environment where they can be penalized in the worst ways — not just from prisoners, but from staff — if they talk.”

“There’s a thick, concrete wall of silence to break through,” he said, “and if you do break through it, it’s rare and people are doing it at their own risk.”

Three notable projects that aim to collect the number of people killed at the hands of police officers have arisen since the death of Michael Brown in August 2014. The CountedKilled By Police, and Mapping Police Violence aim to fill the gap in comprehensible data on police killings left by the Bureau of Justice StatisticsCenter for Disease Control, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation 

These projects shine a light on those killed by police on the outside, but similar reporting is not available on those killed behind bars—though their creators are trying.

“Prisoners are what I would call threw-away people to most Americans,” King said. “I talked with people, and most people really don’t give a shit about what happens to be people in prison.”

“It’s just not an issue to them,” he said. “Most Americans believe if you’re there you deserve. It’s a rough place, shit happens, and please don’t waste any money investigating this stuff.”  

“It’s a case-by-case basis. It really depends on what’s the burden of the evidence,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and policy analyst who helped create Mapping Police Violence. “There are cases where it’s important to note this is a very small number; it’s like a handful of cases that it clearly looks like something happened, but the police department denied this.”

“There are in-custody deaths that are more unclear that don’t get included, and we’re kind of waiting for more information to come out.”

Sinyangwe refers to cases like that of Tyree Woodson. Baltimore police claimed that after searching Woodson, he managed to sneak a gun into the police station and shoot himself in bathroom while handcuffed.

Retired Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez referred to Woodson as a violent criminal and gang member. In August 2014, Woodson’s family questioned the police’s motives and said they need to be held accountable for his death, according to CBS Baltimore.

 According to him, video of Bland and how police officers were treating her indicates something other than suicide.

Bland died while in the custody of Waller County, Texas police. A team of special prosecutors investigated her death and presented new evidence to a grand jury in late December.

The grand jury decided not to indict anyone in the death of Bland on Monday, Dec. 21. They will reconvene in early January for “remaining issues.”  

Bland’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in August. That trial is set for Jan. 23, 2017.

Sinyangwe said questionable deaths in police custody, like Woodson and Bland, are included in his team’s database.

“There’s only a handful of them, though,” he said. “There are in-custody deaths that are more unclear that don’t get included, and we’re kind of waiting for more information to come out.”

One such case is that of Kindra Chapman, an 18-year-old whom both police and attorneys representing Chapman’s mother say took her own life while in custody.

The team behind the Counted uses an editorial process to decide whom to include in their database and whom not to include. Some of those in their database are those who died in police custody.

“Our database was never exclusively a database of people who have been shot by police,” said Jamiles Lartey, writer and researcher at the Counted. “We also have people who were hit by police vehicles, people who were Tased and later died.”

“It would be improper to, editorially, go ahead and lump all police shootings together with people who were brought to jail and for whatever reason died,” Lartey added.

If a victim had been beaten by police, said Lartey, the Counted includes those cases. They don’t include cases that are ruled suicides or deaths by natural causes.

For example, the Counted doesn’t include Bland in its database, but McKenna is included. This is based on the best information, including medical autopsies, the team has about each case, said Lartey.

While tallying the number of deaths that occur in police custody remains an inexact science, the data may soon improve. 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is run by the DOJ, maintains a database of “arrest-related deaths,” as it calls them, though the data is far from complete. The DOJ is hoping to change that with its new open-source data system on police killings, launching at the beginning of 2016.

“The department’s position and the administration’s position has consistently been that we need to have national, consistent data.”

“The department’s position and the administration’s position has consistently been that we need to have national, consistent data,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement. “This information is useful because it helps us see trends, it helps us promote accountability and transparency.”

Lynch added that the DOJ plans to go “further in developing standards for publishing information about deaths in custody as well”

Like other government agencies, the DOJ hasn’t required law enforcement to share data on civilians killed by police, but they are planning to expand the number of sources they use to report this data. In October, an agency official told the Guardian that the DOJ plans to have reporting coordinators who are based in state law enforcement agencies to help with this process.

A BJS official told the Guardian, the agency’s reporting process will include identifying online keywords, rather than relying solely on law enforcement, to create a system that is “something close to the true number” of police killings.

Until that project comes to fruition, however, the patchwork efforts of journalists and activists will have to be enough.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Update: 9:38am CT, Dec. 29: A grand jury issued no indictment in the death of Bland on Monday night, Dec. 21.

The Daily Dot