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MASTERSON ONLINE: Dying in custody

by Mike Masterson | July 6, 2019 at 1:56 a.m.

An admirable enterprise story by three reporters from the Capital News Service understandably caught my eye not long ago.

It explained that, more than four years after Congress tasked the Department of Justice with assembling information about people who die in police custody, "the agency has yet to implement a system for collecting that data or release any new details of how and why people die under the watch of law enforcement."

It is called "The Death in Custody Reporting Act."

Their story reported: "The law, enacted in December 2014, is meant to paint a clearer picture of police-involved killings and deaths inside correctional facilities. It requires both state and federal law enforcement agencies to report information about those who die while under arrest, in the process of being arrested or while incarcerated."

Hooray! That's certainly a good thing for our nation and justice. I only have one problem with (and relevant questions about) this 2014 act.

The year was 1995. I had just published a four-day-long special report following months of national investigation for the Asbury Park Press of New Jersey headlined Dying in Custody: "Hundreds of people, some charged with only minor offenses, wind up dead in jail cells and lockups across the country each year. The actual toll is unknown because no one, including the federal government, bothers keeping track."

My interest in the subject actually began in 1981 while reporting for the Chicago Sun-Times when I discovered young black men were dying in local police lockups at a rate higher than the combined annual total of similar deaths in New York and Los Angeles. Many such deaths occurred under highly suspicious circumstances.

As special-projects editor for the Asbury Park Press in 1995, I had an opportunity to elaborate on those earlier Chicago stories by expanding the scope of one city's jail deaths to our nation.

Since no agency or person had been counting, I decided to subscribe for four months to a clipping service that forwarded copies of news accounts about local jail and lockup deaths nationwide.

The articles began flowing in to eventually fill a file folder. And, as suspected, many such deaths were reported as suicides within hours of arrest, supposedly committed by a vast majority of detainees who'd been charged with misdemeanors. Some also were mentally ill.

I spent time at the paper's expense traveling to examine circumstances and specifics of some cases firsthand. Others I pursued over the phone. Steadily the numbers built to more than 1,000 and I gained at least some perspective on just how many deaths were occurring each year.

I found it inconceivable the U.S. Justice Department had never required local law enforcement facilities, large and small, to regularly report deaths of citizens held in their custody. I wasn't talking about the prisons, which did count their deaths, but city and county jails and police lockups.

How was it possible to spot disturbing trends like the example I discovered where one news clip reported a smaller jail in Texas had as many as five suicide deaths in a single year? How could the FBI possibly know to examine the civil-rights circumstances of such cases if they hadn't been officially reported outside the local paper?

Once the series had been published as a special report, I grabbed a suitcase full and caught a train to Washington, D.C., to hand copies to appropriate congressmen. I hoped they would recognize the need to create a law that required all such deaths in custody be reported to the attorney general.

At that time, Governor Asa Hutchinson was the 3rd District congressman. He promised to read the report and discuss it with his staff, as did then-senators Tim Hutchinson and Dale Bumpers. Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia also took an interest in working with Hutchinson on drafting legislation.

Everyone I visited seemed sincerely interested. I left D.C. hopeful the stories might prompt positive reforms in our country. It only made sense that we would want to know the hows and whys so many among us were dying. The extreme potential for abuse without a shred of oversight struck me as frightening.

Life went on. I left Asbury Park not long afterwards to return to my native Ozarks as the executive editor of Fayetteville's Northwest Arkansas Times under publisher George Smith. And I continued writing about the matter back home.

Then dawned October 2000. I received a letter from Asa Hutchinson and copy of his delayed legislation that finally had unanimously passed the U.S. House and Senate and been signed into law. Thus was born the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000, requiring municipal and county jails and lockups to report deaths in their custody to the U.S. attorney general each quarter.

So I'm naturally curious why this very specific law passed unanimously some 19 years ago has apparently been sponsored by the same Rep. Bobby Scott as the "Death in Custody Reporting Act" in December 2014?

Was it "re-lawed" (my word) after 14 years? Apparently, the Justice Department has gone nearly two decades failing to enforce the quarterly reporting requirements required by law back in the year 2000.

Scott and the DOJ's inspector general acknowledged the appalling lack of accountability in the mid-June news story Scott told the reporters that until the Department of Justice begins collecting this information, the public won't have a way to know how many people are dying or under what circumstances. When the data is available, he said, "We can at least begin the discussion."

I'm certainly pleased to learn Representative Scott's interest remained in this important issue. Yet I wonder why this accountability is only beginning, after what appears to be identical legislation (while Scott was involved with Hutchinson) became national law almost two decades ago?

Did it just fade away and die inexplicably while in the custody of our Justice Department? I'd hate to think Representative Scott just replicated an existing (and needless) act to gain full credit for passing it. Nah. That kind of selfish, ego-driven thing doesn't happen inside the beltway.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at

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