Cover: Reducing Deaths in Law Enforcement Custody

Reducing Deaths in Law Enforcement Custody

Identifying High-Priority Needs for the Criminal Justice System

Published Oct 11, 2022

by Duren Banks, Michael G. Planty, Madison Fann, Lynn Langton, Dulani Woods, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Brian A. Jackson

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Research Questions

  1. What are the various definitions and metrics of deaths occurring in law enforcement custody?
  2. What barriers or facilitators affect the reporting of this information at state or national levels?
  3. What information about deaths occurring in law enforcement custody is critical to support policy and practice designed to reduce such deaths?

Congress enacted the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 (DCRA) to address the lack of reliable information about law enforcement–related deaths and deaths in correctional institutions. The U.S. Department of Justice has conducted several activities designed to respond to the provisions specified in the DCRA legislation, as well as their own federal mandates, toward a comprehensive understanding of the prevalence and characteristics of deaths that occur in law enforcement custody. Despite these efforts, no national data collection program currently describes all deaths that occur in law enforcement custody. These data are critical to support strategies to reduce such deaths; to promote public safety through appropriate responses to reported crimes, calls for service, and police-community encounters; and to build trust with communities.

To better understand the needs around developing and leveraging data from a national data collection of law enforcement–related deaths, RTI International and the RAND Corporation, on behalf of the National Institute of Justice, convened a panel of experts to discuss the challenges to conducting a national data collection, to recommend potential solutions to those challenges, and to recommend research and other applications for the collected data. Through a three-session virtual workshop, participants identified 19 high-priority needs to support a comprehensive and robust data collection program on law enforcement–related deaths. These high-priority needs address challenges related to scope, definition, and detail of the collection; data collection elements and reporting needs; and the utility of the information to inform law enforcement training, programs, and policies.

Key Findings

Limiting the scope of data collection to fatal incidents would be insufficient to understand and reduce deaths in law enforcement custody

  • There is no clear consensus across reporting legislation and reporting agencies on the inclusionary criteria to use for critical incidents (deaths, serious injuries, or risk of injuries) that occur in law enforcement custody. Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and other stakeholders disagree on which manners of death should be reported.

Although significant, ongoing data collection efforts are underway, there is currently no comprehensive national or state-level reporting on law enforcement–related deaths.

  • Such a system would require LEAs to report zero deaths when no such deaths occur, which could prove burdensome and resource intensive to capture relatively rare fatal events.
  • Data providers or gatekeepers are concerned about disclosing active case information, respecting individual privacy, and releasing personal identifiable information.

Developing comprehensive databases on existing law enforcement policies and practices is a more-immediate need than developing additional training programs or strategies

  • There is no rigorous evidence on whether any current programs reduce fatalities, serious injuries, or unwarranted deployment of force.
  • There is a lack of information on LEA training, programs, and policies related to use of force, operational tactics, and law enforcement culture.


  • Specify national standards for a more inclusive collection that includes all critical incidents—fatal incidents and all incidents in which police use deadly force—regardless of whether the incident results in a fatality.
  • Develop a taxonomy of deaths or critical incidents that occur in law enforcement custody to provide necessary context to understand law enforcement's role.
  • Support more-reliable and comprehensive reporting to existing systems that rely on law enforcement participation by allocating resources to data providers, leveraging information already collected by these agencies, and otherwise incentivizing participation.
  • Examine the challenges of and facilitators to LEA reporting and build data collection models that address or leverage them.
  • Provide for persistent mandates, incentives, resources (including training), communication, stakeholder engagement (e.g., with other LEAs, advocates, policymakers) to institutionalize LEA reporting.
  • Leverage existing reporting platforms and coordinate across providers to create efficiencies and reduce burden.
  • Develop and implement protections that address privacy concerns. Specify appropriate uses of the data for disclosure and research purposes and provide education for data providers about appropriate uses.
  • Work with the research community, law enforcement, and other pertinent stakeholders to develop appropriate benchmarking indicators and toolkits and disseminate information on appropriate and responsible use of these data.
  • Build a research and knowledge database on LEA training, policies, and operational performance related to use-of-force tactics and operations.
  • Analyze calls-for-service data to understand the prevalence and characteristics of calls that come through traditional 911 and emerging calls-for-service platforms.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was supported by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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