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Nearly 2,000 People Died While Being Arrested in 2015

A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics offers new evidence to those who claim the federal government does a poor job tracking arrest-related deaths.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

An estimated 1,900 people died while being arrested by police in America in 2015, according to new figures from the federal government. The deaths include both those who died directly as a result of police use of force and those who died while being restrained by police, by suffering a heart attack for example.

Sixty-four percent of the deaths were homicides, including justified homicide by a law enforcement officer. Eighteen percent were suicides, 11 percent were accidents, and less than 2 percent were natural. The rest of the deaths were undetermined, unknown, or subject to an incomplete investigation. While past reports issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics addressed the demographics of those who died during arrest, the report published last week did not include such a breakdown.

The numbers are the first to be published since the Bureau of Justice Statistics overhauled its arrest-related death-counting methods in 2015. The data now better aligns with newspapers’ and activists’ estimates, which historically were much higher than the federal government’s, FiveThirtyEight reports. And it helps to fill a long-growing desire among activists and officials for better government data on police use of force in general.

Between 2003 and 2007, long before the recent method overhaul, the Bureau of Justice Statistics counted an average of 688 deaths per year among people while in police custody or while being restrained by police. In a 2011 report, a bureau statistician acknowledged that “arrest-related deaths are under-reported” to the agency, and that its numbers are “more representative of the nature of arrest-related deaths than the volume at which they occur.”

Between June and August of 2015, public documents talked about 379 people dying while being arrested; the law-enforcement survey turned up 425 deaths.

At the time, the bureau relied on state coordinators to voluntarily supply them with data; there was no particular data method required of coordinators. With such a mandate, many jurisdictions simply didn’t return any data. Following the deaths of men like Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, pressure mounted on the federal government to accurately track police use of force.

In 2015, the bureau tested a two-step arrest-related death-counting method. First, statisticians used a computer to cull and count deaths that were reported in the news and other public documents. Then, they verified a subset of the news stories by surveying law enforcement and coroners’ offices.

The results show that even public reports underestimated how many died: Between June and August of 2015, news and public documents talked about 379 people dying while being arrested; the law-enforcement survey turned up 425 deaths. By extrapolating that under-count over the year, the bureau arrived at 1,900 deaths.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics says it plans to keep using the two-step method for counting deaths that occur during arrests made by local and state police. It’s also planning a survey to get similar data pertaining to federal agents.