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Wyden calls on AG to enforce law requiring police report in-custody, arrest deaths

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Also co-sponsors with Merkley bill to toughen enforcement against police agencies with discriminatory behavior

WASHINGTON (KTVZ) -- Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Tuesday called on Attorney General William Barr immediately to fully implement and enforce a law that requires states to report to the Department of Justice how many individuals die each year while in police custody or during the course of an arrest.

Six years after Congress reauthorized the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), that law still has not been fully implemented or enforced, despite a 2018 DOJ Inspector General report that provided clear recommendations for how to ensure compliance.

“One stark, staggering fact is that there exists no reliable metric on the number of law enforcement-related deaths that occur each year because DOJ has failed to implement and enforce the DCRA,” said the letter from Wyden and 16 other senators. “To be clear, the DCRA will not alone solve the underlying problem. We acknowledge that the data collected pursuant to the DCRA is neither the justice, nor the accountability that the problem demands, but it is a critical step in that direction.

“That data can—and will—inform the substantive and structural reforms that we must make in the weeks and months ahead,” the senators wrote Barr. “To that end, we demand that you begin the immediate implementation and enforcement of the DCRA.”

The letter led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also was signed by U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Cory A. Booker (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Dick Durbin (D-IL) Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

The full text of the letter is below.

Dear Attorney General Barr:

We write to request that the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) take immediate action to implement and enforce the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 (“DCRA”).[1] It has been six years since Congress passed, with bipartisan support, the DCRA and, in those six years, DOJ has not taken meaningful steps toward full implementation or enforcement.[2] That is simply unacceptable.

            The DCRA was passed in 2014, following the tragic law enforcement-related deaths of two Black men—Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, New York. In passing the DCRA, Congress had a singular purpose—that state and federal law enforcement agencies must report to the Attorney General when a person dies in their custody. That data, in turn, would help us, as policymakers, and the Attorney General, as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, make critical decisions to reduce the number of these preventable deaths. To encourage states to report these deaths, Congress gave the Attorney General an enforcement mechanism—the authority to withhold up to 10-percent of the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program funds from states that failed to comply with the DCRA reporting requirement.

The moment in which we find ourselves today—having witnessed the recent law enforcement-related deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks—is not unlike the moment in which the DCRA was passed. But that is because the moment is one and the same. The deaths of Black and Brown men and women at the hands of law enforcement did not stop with Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Countless others have died since, which is to say nothing of those whose lives were taken before. It is precisely because of these repeated moments in history we need the DCRA now more than ever.

One stark, staggering fact is that there exists no reliable metric on the number of law enforcement-related deaths that occur each year because DOJ has failed to implement and enforce the DCRA. To be clear, the DCRA will not alone solve the underlying problem. We acknowledge that the data collected pursuant to the DCRA is neither the justice, nor the accountability that the problem demands, but it is a critical step in that direction. That data can—and will—inform the substantive and structural reforms that we must make in the weeks and months ahead. To that end, we demand that you begin the immediate implementation and enforcement of the DCRA.

            Thank you for your timely attention to this matter.


[1] Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, Pub. L. No. 113-242, 128 Stat. 2860 (2014).

[2] See Dep’t of Justice, Office of the Inspector Gen., Review of the Department of Justice’s Implementation of the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 (Dec. 2018), https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2018/e1901.pdf. In 2018, the Office of the Inspector General issued a report on DOJ’s failure to fully implement the DCRA. The report noted, in part, that “despite the DCRA requirement to collect and report state arrest-related death data by fiscal year (FY) 2016, the Department does not expect to begin its collection of this data until the beginning of FY 2020.” Id. at i. The report also stated, “[W]e found that the Department has no plans to complete a required study of DCRA data and report to Congress on the study’s results.” Id. at 21. We have seen no evidence that would suggest that DOJ, under your leadership, has taken any action since the Inspector General published this report to implement and enforce the DCRA despite the Inspector General’s recommendations on how to do so. Id. at 21-22.


Wyden, Merkley Co-sponsor Legislation to Investigate and Hold Police Officers and Departments Accountable for Discriminatory Practices

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today announced they are co-sponsoring legislation that would strengthen the federal and state governments' ability to investigate police departments with a pattern or practice of unconstitutional and discriminatory behavior.

“Real change to uproot systemic racism in police departments demands a firm commitment to investigations that carry real accountability for law enforcement agencies when they violate civil rights,” Wyden said. “This legislation would take a significant step forward toward re-establishing the core principle that the federal government supports local efforts to stop police misconduct and discrimination.”

“A badge can’t be a free pass to commit crimes with impunity,” said Merkley. “The American people deserve a police force that works for everyone—regardless of the color of someone’s skin—and that means we need to make it easier to hold police departments accountable for their misconduct. Thorough investigations are critical to that effort, and that’s why I’m urging my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to stand up against discrimination by supporting this legislation.”

During the Obama administration, the Department of Justice (DOJ) used its authority to investigate police departments with a track record of unconstitutional policing and hold them accountable by entering into consent decrees - court-monitored settlements mandating that police departments adopt specific reforms. That practice came to a complete halt in the Trump administration. Trump's DOJ hasn't entered into a single consent decree. Even worse, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on his final day in office, issued guidance limiting DOJ's use of consent decrees. 

While Trump's DOJ has turned its back on pattern or practice investigations, state Attorneys General have urged Congress to clarify their authority to investigate local law enforcement agencies with a pattern of abuse. The Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act would rescind the Sessions guidance, enhance the federal government's ability to pursue pattern or practice investigations, and empower state Attorneys Generals to pursue pattern or practice investigations and give them the robust funding they need to do so. 

In addition to Wyden and Merkley, other co-sponsors of the bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawai'i) are U.S. Sens.Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn,), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

The Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act would: 

  • Rescind the November 2018 memorandum issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which placed limits on DOJ's ability to enter into consent decrees to reform police departments with a history of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices.
  • Empower state Attorneys General to pursue pattern or practice investigations, providing a critical backstop if DOJ fails to act, and create a grant program to assist states in pursuing investigations and consent decrees.
  • Triple funding for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, and dedicate $100 million per year for the next 10 years to the Division to pursue these investigations into police departments with a history of engaging in unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices.

The legislation is endorsed by the National Urban League, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), National Action Network, Demand Progress, and the Public Rights Project.

Text of the Enhancing Oversight to End Discrimination in Policing Act is here. A one-page summary of the bill is here.

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