Ignoring new reporting standards will endanger lives and funding

In the wake of controversial police actions—such as the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—the lack of reliable statistics about law enforcement tactics is often met with public and legislative scorn. As a result, the reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies are in a state of constant evolution and growth. More than just appeasing the public’s craving for data, accurate reporting can help departments save money and lives.

Though some agencies have proactively collected, aggregated, and published these types of reports for years, the voluntary nature of these programs has necessarily resulted in incomplete information. Beginning with the Death in Custody Reporting Act, however, it appears that federal lawmakers plan to migrate to mandatory reporting models instead.

Departmental policies are shaped by external factors
Since the profession began, police policy has been crafted largely from outside the department. As new statutes and court decisions are issued, departments are often left with little time to transition to the new requirements.

In 1966, for example, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Miranda v. Arizona, which drastically changed arrest and interrogation procedures across the nation.1 Because the decision was a matter of constitutional law through the 14th Amendment, failure to give the proper warnings was certain to make any elicited confessions inadmissible at trial. Thus, even those departments who may have disapproved of the new requirement realized the need for quick implementation.


Despite claims on the Senate floor nearly half a century ago that “the confession as a law enforcement instrument [would be] virtually eliminated,” departments continued to secure criminal confessions after the requirements changed. As a testament to their resiliency, departments in some cities actually obtained higher confession rates after Miranda.

Half a century later,  policies must not only be responsive new legislative and judicial demands, but also to public opinion. In the wake of Ferguson, the media tried to contextualize the encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, but reliable statistics did not exist.  The FBI has long collected information about police homicides, but these reports have been criticized as “nearly useless” due to inadequate classification procedures and the lack of any enforcement mechanism.  

The Guardian found that even though the FBI had 32 classifications for homicide, some as detailed as “child killed by babysitter,” only one references a homicide by a police officer — “felon killed by police.”  Because this classification if automatically counted as a justifiable homicide, there is currently no way for departments to accurately report unjustified killings or police homicides involving non-felons.

In response, Public Law No. 113-242, the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DICRA), was passed by Congress and signed by the President on December 18, 2014. Pointed to by many as the first piece of Ferguson-influenced legislation, DICRA requires states and federal agencies to start reporting information to the Attorney General quarterly within 120 days of the law’s enactment.

Specifically, states must report:

  • the name, gender, race, ethnicity and age of the deceased;
  • the date, time and location of death;
  • the law enforcement agency that detained, arrested, or was in the process of arresting the deceased; and,
  • a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the death.

This applies to the death of anyone who is detained, under arrest, in the process of being arrested, en route to be incarcerated, or is already incarcerated at any jail, prison, or other correctional facility.

Lethal force reporting is linked to federal grants

As with Miranda, departments should be intrinsically motivated to adapt to new reporting requirements, though the stakes are different. Rather than jeopardizing the conviction of criminals or violating constitutional rights,  states not in compliance risk losing up to ten percent of their federal grant funding.2 Rescinded funding is reallocated to states that are in compliance with the law, so there is an even greater incentive to begin reporting immediately. Federal agencies must adhere to these reporting requirements on an annual basis, but will not share the grant reallocations.

The impact of 10 percent may seem negligible, but in 2015, the City of Los Angeles received $1,357,936 in direct allocations under these programs. Thus, if they do not report death in custody statistics to the Attorney General each quarter, Los Angeles could forfeit as much as $135,794. While the majority of state, county, and municipal grants are smaller than that, even a few thousand dollars can make a drastic impact on a rural agency’s budget.

Based on recent research, a substantial number departments are not ready to meet this reporting requirement. In 2014, 11 states had no departments submit fatal shooting records. When that data is compared to actual JAG allocations, that means more than $5,442,341.20 would have been subject to reallocation from these states alone had the requirements been in place last year.

Though the law gives the attorney general the discretion to grant a 120-day extension to states making good-faith efforts to comply, that window has already closed. If your department is not collecting and disclosing this information by now, you are already out of compliance.

Anticipate changes to vehicular pursuit reporting

The federal government has acknowledged deficiencies in other reports, too. Its records indicate that there have been 24 officer deaths resulting from vehicular pursuits since 1980, but USA Today showed that the actual figure is more than 371. Incomplete data about high-speed chases causes departments to improperly assess risks, endangering its officers’ lives.

Not surprisingly, helping departments to properly weigh these dangers brings immediate benefits. In September 2012, the FBI issued a bulletin alert that urged extreme caution when deploying spike strips to end a high-speed pursuit. Since then, related officer deaths decreased by 50 percent.

At the federal, state, and local levels, reports on police deaths and injuries influence the training that officers receive and can directly impact a department’s bottom line. One provider of an emergency vehicle operators course (EVOC) found that the training reduced officers’ critical errors by 67 percent, resulting in a 27 percent reduction for workers compensation payouts. When officers from the a state highway patrol completed this EVOC training, an 11 percent reduction in at-fault crashes resulted in an estimated $846,000 savings based on the national average crash settlement.

Case law and national events are unpredictable by nature, so preparing for the next wave in reporting compliance is no easy task. However, departments can be assured that new standards will become more rigorous over time. Given the positive impact that reporting has on efficiency, funding and saving lives, departments should stand ready to embrace whatever challenges lie ahead.

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1See the Senate report for the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, beginning at page 14.

2The applicable federal grants are the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Programs, the Local Government Law Enforcement Block Grants Program, and the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.

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