Database Tracks Deaths in Police Custody

Project pulls data from the last decade


Amanda Woog (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last Wednesday at UT-Austin, Amanda Woog, a policy analyst at the school's Insti­tute for Urban Policy Research & Analy­sis, presented 10 years' worth of data detailing Texans who've died at the hands of law enforcement or in custody of local jails or prisons. The database, available at www.texasjusticeinitiative.org, provides general demographic data for the 6,913 in-custody deaths that occurred in the state between 2005 and 2015, as well as an official summary provided by the state department or law enforcement agency that offers a narrative into the events leading up to the individual's death.

Woog compiled the data through an open records request to the Attorney General's Office, which has collected Custodial Death Reports since the 68th Legislature started requiring municipal and county jails, state prisons, and law enforcement agencies to report out the details of each death in 1983. A flip through each search filter – sorting by gender, race/ethnicity, year of death, age, cause of death, and department/agency/facility – reveals certain well-known trends, such as the disparity between blacks' representation in Texas' population and the rate at which they populate this database, and some that are considered less often.

"An important piece is the number of people who are in jail pre-trial who died," noted Woog: "76 percent of people who died in jail were there and had not yet been convicted of a crime. The intersection of poverty and criminal justice can lead to people dying in jail, which is horrifying. Another detail that was surprising was deaths in law enforcement custody: They've gone up pretty consistently across the state over the past 10 years. The lowest number we saw was in 2006. The highest number was in 2015. It's been somewhat linear through these years."

Essential to interpreting the database, Woog said, are the official summaries that accompany each entry. Whereas the data points allow visitors to see trends and look at how custodial deaths are happening on a larger scale, summaries provide a narrative window into what officials are saying caused the death to take place. (Summary reports are not available for state prison deaths before 2013.) The Custodial Death Report form "doesn't include a question concerning whether the person was armed or unarmed," Woog said. "If you're looking at deaths in law enforcement custody, it would be impossible to talk about the level of threat in the interaction. But the narrative gives some kind of account for the level, and what kind of threat there might have been. It adds a lot to it. More than anything, I think it rounds out the reporting."

This is the second database Woog has compiled this year. Last October, she published a statewide database of officer-involved shootings in line with HB 1036, the law to come out of the 84th Legislature requiring law enforcement agencies to issue reporting data on officer-involved shootings to the OAG. A link to that and other reports are available at liberalarts.utexas.edu/iupra/briefs-and-reports/2015.php.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Justice Initiative, Amanda Woog, University of Texas, Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, police shootings

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