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Federal Agencies Rack Up Nearly One Thousand Arrest-Related or In-Custody Deaths in Two Years, DOJ Report Finds

The DOJ report was issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The report’s findings were based on the Federal Law Enforcement Agency Deaths Reporting Program, which the BJS developed in response to the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013. The law requires federal law enforcement agencies to report when any person dies while being detained, while being arrested, or while in the custody of federal law enforcement officers.

Homicides made up 47% of the arrest-related deaths. In FY 2016, 51 people died in arrest-related incidents. Another 41 people died during such incidents in FY 2017.

The most deaths, 25, were reported by the U.S. Marshall’s Service. The Customs and Border Protection Service reported ten deaths, the FBI reported nine deaths, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported four deaths over the reporting period.

One death each was reported by the Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

In 54.7% of the total deaths, officers were serving a warrant. In 55 cases, the person killed was allegedly committing an offense in the events leading up to their death. Less than half of these (43.6%) were listed as violent offenses. The majority of the “most serious alleged” offenses listed were drugs (8), immigration violation (8), weapons (7), public order (7), and property (1).

Those agencies reported that 41 of those 92 arrest-related deaths, or 46.6%, were attributed to homicide. Suicide was the manner of death in 37 cases, an accident was the attributed cause in four deaths, illness was the cause in six deaths, and four deaths had an unknown cause.

Four cases were labelled as vehicle-involved deaths. A weapon caused 76 of the deaths, with a firearm being involved in 72 cases. Officers used a weapon in 53 deaths.

A racial breakdown reveals that Black people, who make up 12% of the US population, are disproportionately represented. Of the 92 arrest-related deaths, 57 (66.3%) of the decedents were white and 22 (25.6%) were Black.

People aged 18-44 comprised 68 (73.9%) of the people who died in arrest-related incidents.

In 20 cases, the death occurred while the decedent tried to escape or flee custody. Other actions of the decedent during the incident included attempts to physically assault officers (16), barricaded self or initiated standoff (14), resisted being arrested or handcuffed (10), verbally threatened others (7), attempted to gain control of an officer’s weapon (4), escaped or fled from custody (4), and gained possession of an officer’s weapon (2).

Of the 897 deaths in custody, illness was the manner of death in 763 cases. Other manners of death were suicide (59), accident (29), and homicide (28). A medical center outside the prison was the location of death in 497 cases and 259 deaths occurred within a prison’s medical unit or infirmary. The general housing unit was the place of death 36 times and ten prisoners died in an isolation cell. Two prisoners died in a prison’s special mental health unit and one died during transit.

Age was a factor, as 693 of the reported in-custody deaths involved prisoners aged 45 or older. The most serious offense committed by the prisoners varied widely, but those imprisoned for drug offenses comprised 291 of the reported deaths, which was more than twice the number of deaths of prisoners with other crimes. The vast majority of the reported deaths (781) were people convicted of new offenses, and 687 prisoners had served one year or more. 


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