Friday, December 2, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Deaths in police custody on the rise

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
December 2, 2011

Deaths in police custody increased 16 percent between 2008 and 2009. A total of 4,183 deaths in police custody were reported to the Arrest-Related Deaths Program of the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) between 2002 and 2009, according to a BJS report issued this month.  During that same time period the FBI reported that law enforcement agencies made 98 million arrests and 854 police officers died in the line of duty.

The Arrest-Related Deaths Program (ARD) grew out of the federal Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000 (DICRA). The DICRA defined custody related deaths as "the death of any person who is in the process of arrest, is en route to be incarcerated, or is incarcerated at a municipal or county jail, state prison, or other local or state correctional facility."

The DICRA requires each state to report police custody deaths to the ARD. The ARD expanded the definition of “the process of arrest” to include vehicular and other fatalities resulting from flight from arrest, uses of lethal force by police, suicides occurring during arrest attempts, and deaths of arrestees resulting from drug overdoses, or other medical conditions or deaths occurring during transport to a holding facility, jail, or booking center.

Before the enactment of the DICRA states had no uniform requirements for reporting the circumstances surrounding deaths in police custody. Consequently, an environment of suspicion arose surrounding many situations where a death occurred in police custody. Without specific reporting requirements a finding of suicide or death by natural causes was looked upon with distrust -- often causing community unrest.
The best known death while in police custody in Pittsburgh was that of Jonny Gammage Jr. He died in 1995 after a traffic stop. Three police officers, two from Brentwood and one from Baldwin, were charged with involuntary manslaughter, none were convicted.

Pennsylvania reported 218 deaths in police custody between 2003 and 2009. Pennsylvania trailed only California, Texas, Florida, New York and Arizona. Those six states account for about 65 percent of all such deaths.

According to BJS, a substantial majority of deaths in police custody, 2,931 out of 4,183, where ruled homicides. That sounds as though police officers are cold blooded killers. Homicide should not be confused with murder. Although murder is a form of homicide some homicides are justified. In fact, 64 percent of homicides by police are in response to felonious physical assaults on police officer. A police officer’s response with lethal force, causing the death of a felon, is justifiable homicide.

While suicide, intoxication, accidental death and natural causes account for the remaining deaths in police custody, those who succumbed while being pursued, detained or transported by police are almost exclusively men -- representing more than 95 percent of those who died in police custody.

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