Unreported Police Shootings Spur Questions About In-Custody Deaths

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News Violence

Unreported Police Shootings Spur Questions About In-Custody Deaths

Teddy Wilson

"When you have so many law enforcement agencies it just opens up that possibility so many more times. We probably have the most unreported cases coming from law enforcement, and of course police shootings are just a subset of that," said Amanda Woog, project director at the Texas Justice Initiative.

Law enforcement agencies in Texas and California have failed to report hundreds of police shooting deaths in violation of state laws, according to a new study by Texas State University researchers.

Researched said from 2005 to 2015, there were at least 220 unreported police shootings in Texas, and at least 440 in California, reported the Houston Chronicle.

The study’s authors said in an email to Rewire that the “study only covers officer-involved shooting deaths,” and confirmed that “all 660 are shooting deaths.”

Texas and California are the only two states requiring law enforcement agencies to report all in-custody deaths, including police shooting deaths, to the state attorneys general. However, failure to report these incidents is only a misdemeanor in Texas, and there is no penalty in California.

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Both states require law enforcement agencies to report the cause of in-custody deaths, but the classification system does not include a category for deaths that are the result of a police shooting. Most in-custody deaths that are the result of police shootings are classified as “justifiable homicides.”

The data was compiled and analyzed by Texas State University professors Scott Bowman, Howard Williams, and co-author Jordan Taylor Jung, who examined the custodial death reports from Texas and California and compared them to police shootings from media reports, police department press releases, and other sources.

The Texas and California attorney generals’ offices confirmed many cases were missing, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Nearly 7,000 people died from 2005 to 2015 while in police custody in Texas, according to a report by the Texas Justice Initiative (TJI). There have been 464 in-custody deaths reported in 2016 by the Texas Attorney General’s Office. 

Amanda Woog, a postdoctoral legal fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and project director at TJI, told the Houston Chronicle that she independently reviewed and confirmed the findings of the Texas State University researchers.

Woog said it’s critical that the 139 Texas agencies with at least one unreported police shooting address the problems in reporting policies. “In order to obtain a full picture of how and why people die in the hands of law enforcement we have to have a complete data set,” Woog said.

Woog told Rewire that the number of police shooting deaths “definitely raises questions” about what other types of in-custody deaths have gone unreported. Unreported deaths from state prisons would seem unlikely because of a centralized reporting system, but unreported deaths from the hundreds of local law enforcement agencies and jails is a significant possibility, Woog said.

“When you have so many law enforcement agencies it just opens up that possibility so many more times. We probably have the most unreported cases coming from law enforcement, and of course police shootings are just a subset of that,” Woog said. “That does raise the question of what other deaths have happened in law enforcement custody, and I’m sure that there are more that have been unreported that we haven’t found yet.”

California saw more than 6,800 in-custody deaths from 2005 to 2014, according to data from the state’s Open Justice Initiative.

There were 180 California law enforcement agencies that failed to report at least one police shooting.

Brenda Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the California Attorney General’s Office, told the Houston Chronicle that the office has requested law enforcement agencies file unreported in-custody deaths, but noted that there is “no explicit enforcement mechanism.”

Williams began researching police killings after his retirement in 2014 from the San Marcos, Texas, police department. Williams served as police chief of the San Marcos Police Department from 2003 to 2014.

There were four in-custody deaths reported by the San Marcos Police Department between 2006 and 2013, all of which were police shootings that were ruled by the department as “justifiable homicide,” according to the TJI data.

Bowman told the Texas Standard that the lack of enforcement mechanism makes it unlikely that officers would be fully compliant with the laws.

“It would be a little presumptuous to assume that that data is being collected accurately and comprehensively,” Bowman said. “Even though there’s a law on the books, there would have to be–as is consistent with many laws–there would have to be the fear of prosecutions.”

Texas and California have similar in-custody death reporting laws.

Under Texas law, when a person dies in police custody, in jail or prison, or as the result of a police officer’s use of force, it is required that the law enforcement agency “file a written report of the cause of death” to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

When a person dies while in the custody of any law enforcement agency, or while in a local or state prison, the agency in charge is required by California law to report the circumstances of the death “in writing to the Attorney General, within 10 days after the death.”

Bowman told the Texas Standard that the data suggests there needs to be changes to how in-custody deaths are reported.

“It ultimately should be data that’s collected from an outside organization or agency,” Bowman said. “That data needs to be more comprehensive. Receiving very basic [information] … simply isn’t enough to improve police and community relations. There may be information that police need to better come to that decision–that kind of final lethal force decision–and there may be information that the community needs in order to avoid those circumstances.”