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Las Vegas Criminal Defense

What Is The Truth About Deaths In Custody?


How many people die in police custody in this country? Is race a factor when it comes to in-custody deaths across this country?  The public has not been privy to the data gathered since the Death in Custody Reporting Act was established in 2013 requiring states to submit data related to any deaths while a person is being detained, arrested, transported, or incarcerated.  This may be because the justice department has really not put any muscle into the program.  So where does that leave us?

Here’s What We’re Talking About 

Someone who dies while in police custody may have the cause of death listed as, say, cardiac arrest. This was what happened in the case of Ronald Greene, for example, even though the death was preceded by being tased, dragged across a road, and beaten by officers of the law.   Likewise, Elijah McClain reportedly died of undetermined causes, even though he had suffered ketamine injections and a chokehold.  Even George Floyd’s death was initially listed by the medical examiner as a result of health issues and drug use, despite the obvious knee on the neck that the whole world viewed.

Undercounting of Deaths in Custody 

Forty years of undercounting police killings has come to a head, as the racial bias of medical examiners is questioned and unreliable record keeping nationwide comes under fire. Data from the National Vital Statistics System has been analyzed in comparison to data related to police killings, and the results are startling.  Going back for decades, it turns out that well over 50 percent of deaths resulting from police encounters had some other listed cause of death. In fact, over 17,000 fatalities involving police are completely unaccounted for in the period studied.  What is behind this egregious miscount?

Factors in Miscounts 

How does the system that has allowed for this massive undercounting operate?  The truth is, there is plenty of criticism that the relationship between forensic pathologists—who have consistent communication with prosecutors or detectives—and with law enforcement in general—is a bit too snug.  On the other hand, pathologists note that there are plenty of times that they either are not given information relative to the case at hand, or that they are actually pressured to write conclusions of which police organizations approve. Finally, it must be acknowledged that coroners have the ability to overrule the conclusions of pathologists.  This is significant because in many cases, coroners are elected officials who, in some circumstances, don’t even hold a medical degree.  So medical examiners (ME’s) sometimes fail to point out that law enforcement personnel were involved in the case; oftentimes, these and other coding mistakes lead to miscounts.

Getting to the Truth 

Equally stunning is the fact that Blacks were killed at well over three times the rate of whites in this country.  The number of Native Americans and Latinos were also over-represented in comparison to their relative proportions of the population. Men are killed about 20 times more frequently than women. These numbers suggest that reporting systems are failing.  If you have lost a loved one while in custody and are looking for answers, the Las Vegas criminal lawyers at Lobo Law can help.  Schedule a confidential consultation in our office today.



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