By Kelly Davis, Guest Contributor

Since the early ’90s, the California Department of Justice has allowed public access to data it receives on all deaths that occur in law enforcement custody — jails, prisons, state hospitals — during the process of arrest or later in confinement.

This disclosure is required by state law, the result of Assemblyman John Burton’s AB 2302, which he carried in 1993 after an unusual spike in inmate deaths. The intent of the bill, as a 1993 Los Angeles Times article put it, was to require that “reports explaining the circumstances of the deaths of state prison inmates … be made available for public review.”

But the transparency and opportunity for public scrutiny Burton envisioned never happened. While state agencies do report all deaths in custody to the DOJ — I know because I’ve worked with these data to report on inmate deaths in San Diego — that information’s not readily accessible to the public. You have to file a California Public Records Act request, and there’s been only one report, published a decade ago, analyzing the data.

But that changed last week. On Sept. 2, state Attorney General Kamala Harris rolled out the DOJ’s new Open Justice website, which breaks down three data sets — arrest rates, deaths in custody, and law enforcement officers killed or assaulted — into user-friendly charts and graphs. There’s a lot to like about Open Justice, starting with its mission statement, which describes the website as “a transparency initiative… so we can understand how we are doing, hold ourselves accountable, and improve public policy to make California safer.”

A lot of what the data show isn’t new or surprising: most inmates die from natural causes (the result of old age or poor healthcare on the outside); suicides are more likely to happen pre-trial — in jails — than in prisons; juvenile arrests have declined significantly in the last three decades; black males are overrepresented among both arrests and deaths.

Researchers, reporters and anyone who’s spreadsheet savvy can download the raw data — which offer more information that what’s currently available on the website — to do their own analyses and share them with the DOJ.

My only complaint is that it took a bit of time to figure out how to filter data by agency (police, sheriff, CDCR, etc.) and agency type in the Death in Custody portion of the website. Pro tip: Go to the “Agencies” pull-down menu, click “None” at the bottom, then select the agency you want to search. At that point you’ll get a checklist of agencies or institutions.

Being able to isolate the data by agency is an important accountability tool. Here’s where we see, for instance, that last year the California Highway Patrol reported 14 “accidental” arrest-related deaths — double what it reported in 2013, a year that saw the most accidental arrest-related deaths for the CHP in the last eight years (the data here go back only to 2006).

The website is a proactive move on Harris’ part. Two bills in their final stages in the legislature — AB 71 and AB 953 — would increase the amount of information the state collects on police use-of-force and arrests and require annual public reports; Harris says that information would be incorporated into the website. It’s also a response to the overall lack of data on deaths at the hands of law enforcement, which projects like The Guardian’s The Counted, The Washington Post’s tracking of police shooting deaths, and Fatal Encounters are trying to address.

But for folks who’ve been advocating for greater transparency in policing and corrections, Open Justice is a reminder of what we don’t know — and can’t know. California has some of the toughest restrictions on access to law enforcement records of any state. Aside from a medical examiner’s report, the one-page form submitted to the DOJ whenever anyone dies in custody or the process of arrest is the only information that’s publicly available without a lawsuit. One family I wrote about, whose son committed suicide in San Diego County’s Vista jail, had to sue just to get his booking photo.

Maybe more publicly available data, and scrutiny of those data, will help crack that shell.


Kelly Davis is a freelance journalist based in San Diego who focuses on issues related to adult and juvenile incarceration, mental illness and homelessness. Until March 2015, she was the associate editor at San Diego CityBeat, an alternative newsweekly that she helped start in 2002.