Redesigning the Arrest-Related Deaths Program

A rigorous method to track the number of people who die during the process of arrest

Bureau of Justice Statistics

The death of Michael Brown outside St. Louis in 2014, and the resulting protests and uproar sparked substantial interest in police-involved shootings across the nation. Although a series of similar events have kept public attention on the issue, it remains unclear whether deaths occurring during the process of arrest are increasing in frequency. No reliable national data exist to help us understand the scope or characteristics of whether or how the rate of such incidents have changed over time.

Separate data collections maintained by the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) did not capture the full scope of deaths that occurred during the process of arrest. These prior efforts to track and monitor arrest-related deaths relied on voluntary submission of information, which was infrequent and did not meet rigorous standards for scientific data collection.

To address to this limitation, BJS recently launched a redesign of its Arrest-Related Deaths (ARD) program to enumerate the full scope of deaths occurring while individuals are being taken into police custody. The ARD program is intended to provide a national accounting of people who died during the process of arrest, including homicides by law enforcement personnel and deaths attributed to suicide, accidental injury, and natural causes.

In support of this redesign, our experts devised the new BJS system to more accurately collect data and measure the number of arrest-related deaths in the United States.

Addressing Flaws in Past Efforts to Collect Data on Arrest-Related Deaths

In accordance with the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000, BJS began collecting data on deaths that occurred in police custody during transfer and during the process of arrest. The ARD program, launched in 2003, is part of the Death in Custody Reporting Program, which also collects information on deaths that occur in jails and in prisons.

At launch the ARD program relied heavily on voluntary participation from law enforcement agencies to report the information, and many failed to do so. As a result, the ARD program did not capture all reportable deaths in the process of arrest. In fact, a study conducted by RTI International found that those efforts by BJS and the FBI missed as many as half of the homicides by law enforcement officers.

Due to the limitations of the ARD program, BJS suspended the collection and reporting of arrest-related deaths in 2014.

A Hybrid Process for Accurately Coding and Classifying Deaths in Custody

Our latest work demonstrates that combining approaches to identify arrest-related deaths—particularly open-source information review and survey of law enforcement agencies and coroner’s offices—can yield a better estimate of the prevalence and characteristics of arrest-related deaths in the United States.

To gain a comprehensive picture of arrest-related deaths, RTI and BJS devised a hybrid, two-step process to identify, confirm, and collect information about arrest-related deaths. Our data scientists developed an automated text analysis method to identify reports of potential arrest-related deaths from more than 100,000 relevant media outlets. Using sophisticated machine learning algorithms, we flagged and manually reviewed news articles about potential arrest-related deaths. We then surveyed law enforcement agencies and coroner’s offices to confirm deaths identified through the open data review. We surveyed these agencies as well as a sample of additional agencies to identify other deaths not found in media sources.

For this initial effort, reviews of media reports in the United States from June 1, 2015, through March 31, 2016, produced 1,348 potential arrest-related deaths. We found that arrest-related deaths occurred in all 50 states during that period, with the largest number (224) occurring in California. Washington, DC, Wyoming, and New Mexico had the highest rate of potential arrest-related deaths, whereas New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island had the lowest rates.

We then narrowed the focus to June, July, and August 2015, and conducted a survey of law enforcement agencies and coroner’s offices for official reports and information about the 379 arrest-related deaths identified through open-source review in those three months. This second review identified 425 arrest-related deaths during that time period—12 percent more than reported in the media. Of these 425 deaths, 64 percent were classified as homicide, 18 percent as suicide, 11 percent as accidents, 2 percent as natural causes, 2 percent as undetermined, and 4 percent as pending further investigation.

Based on those two surveys, we were able to estimate that approximately 1,900 people die annually while in police custody.

Eliminating Gaps in Data to Inform Public Discourse, Research, and Policy Decisions

Our efforts to develop a reliable and accurate process for tracking arrest-related deaths provide a useful tool for understanding the prevalence and characteristics of these incidents.

Currently, there is no federally sponsored data collection program that adequately measures the number of arrest-related deaths in the United States, but our new methodology can eliminate that gap.  Using information readily available online, we can standardize data collection and eliminate the need to rely on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement. As reported in The Guardian, this system is the most comprehensive official effort so far to accurately record the number of deaths at the hands of American law enforcement and to provide the “national, consistent data” described in 2015 by the U.S. Attorney General.

Such information is invaluable for criminal justice researchers and law enforcement agencies to understand the scope of the issue, as well as to determine whether arrest-related deaths are a growing problem or whether heightened media awareness is simply bringing more attention to the issue.

Equally important, our accurate method can provide policy makers and law enforcement agencies information that can be used to develop new policies and practices to reduce or eliminate deaths during the arrest process.