Gray's death in Baltimore: How many people die each year while being arrested?

There are not reliable statistics

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The still mysterious death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police raises an obvious question: How many civilians die in the process of being arrested and put in to custody?

The short answer is we don’t have a clue. The Bureau of Justice Statistics began trying to accurately count what are technically called Arrest-Related Deaths in 2003, but gave up in 2014 because the data was so bad.

A follow-up report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics released just last month concluded:

“We found that over the study period from 2003 through 2009 and 2011, the ARD program captured, at best, 49% of all law enforcement homicides in the United States. The lower bound of ARD program coverage was estimated to be 36%. These findings indicate that the current ARD program methodology does not allow a census of all law enforcement homicides in the United States.”

The BJS did publish the data collected for the years 2003-2009. The report summarized the highlights:

  • A total of 4,813 deaths were reported to the Arrest-Related Deaths program from January 2003 through December 2009.
  • Of reported arrest-related deaths, 61% (2,931) were classified as homicides by law enforcement personnel, 11% (541) were suicides, 11% (525) were due to intoxication, 6% (272) were accidental injuries, and 5% (244) were attributed to natural causes.
  • State and local law enforcement agencies employing 100 or more full-time sworn personnel accounted for 75% of the 4,813 arrest-related deaths reported during 2003-2009.
  • Among reported arrest-related deaths, 42% of persons were white, 32% were black, and 20% were Hispanic.

There are many reasons why this project failed. Perhaps the biggest is that some states failed to report anything at all most years. Georgia and Wyoming never reported. Basic data collection proved impossible.

There were also definitional problems: What exactly is an Arrest-Related Death? The BJS defines it this way:

“An arrest-related death is defined as any death (e.g., gunshot wound, cardiac arrest, or drowning) that occurs during an interaction with state or local law enforcement personnel, including those that occur—

  • during an attempted arrest or in the process of arrest
  • while the person is in law enforcement custody (before transfer to jail)
  • shortly after the person’s freedom to leave is restricted.

Exclusions include—

  • deaths of bystanders, hostages, and law enforcement personnel
  • deaths occurring during an interaction with federal law enforcement agents
  • deaths of wanted criminal suspects before police contact
  • deaths by vehicular pursuits without any direct police action.”

People die in all sorts of ways in the process of being arrested. Deaths caused intentionally, whether justified or unjustified, are a subset of that larger group. The size of both is unknown.

News stories often use 400 as a “common estimate” of how many people die each year during arrests, the number of arrest-related homicides or something in that ballpark. The site FiveThirtyEight.com breaks down why you should ignore that number.

A 2003 report published by the National Institutes of Health called, “Underreporting of Justifiable Homicides Committed by Police Officers in the United States, 1976–1998,” noted that, “Almost every major civil insurrection that occurred in the United States in the past century was initiated or accelerated by the perception that the police had misused their right to use deadly force.”

We have learned that again and again and again this past year with deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Walter Scott in North Charleston and now Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

It’s hard to fix a problem when you don’t even know its scope.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Does gay marriage acceptance signal a truce in culture wars?]

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