Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Podcast: New Texas death-in-custody data online

Grits contributing writer Amanda Woog, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the UT-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, has made a curated version of Texas' death-in-custody database available for the first time online. See her fancy new website, somewhat blandly dubbed the Texas Justice Initiative. There's nothing dull about its contents, however.

Last year, the Texas Legislature mandated that police departments report all police shootings to the Attorney General, whether or not the victim dies. But for years, police, jails and prisons in Texas already had to report deaths in custody, though scarce few people were aware of it and the information wasn't widely available. The AG publishes a master list of names, but nearly all of the voluminous detail until now was kept offline, available only to those who knew enough to file an open records request. Since just a few reporters even knew the database existed (besides Grits, Brandi Grissom of the Dallas News, Tanya Eiserer at WFAA, and John Tedesco at the SA Express-News are the only writers I've seen use it in years), most of the detail here is being revealed publicly for the first time, including on cases from up to a decade ago.

See the press release announcing the new site launch and a 22-page report detailing her initial findings from eleven years of data.  And congratulations, Amanda! This has long been needed; it was a tremendous accomplishment. (MORE: See coverage from The Atlantic and the Texas Tribune.)

To give a better sense of the project, Grits sat down last week with Ms. Woog for a recorded interview. You can listen to it below, or find a transcript of our conversation below the jump.

Scott Henson:     This is Scott Henson with a Grits for Breakfast podcast on July 21, 2016.  I’m here today with Amanda Woog, a Grits for Breakfast contributor who’s also a postdoctoral fellow at the UT-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis. Amanda has been working on an amazing database that is about to be made public on deaths in custody in Texas over the last decade.  It’s very exciting and I’m thrilled that she’s working on it.  Thanks for joining us Amanda.

Amanda Woog:  Thanks, Scott, for having me.

Henson:             So recently we’ve been in this amazing period where police shootings have just been dominating public discussion in many, many ways.  We hear these debates over Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, and after everything that happened recently in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, these debates have become very poignant and focused. But your project is interesting to me because even [in] those discussions, the folks who want to say “All Lives Matter” frequently are really just talking about this narrow set of deaths, these few police shootings, and what your database looks at is everyone who dies at the hands of the state - all different types of scenarios, whether it’s a jail suicide or a death in the prison system.  So talk to me a little bit about your project and what it has to contribute in this moment.

Woog:                Sure.  Well, I think that a lot of the conversations about police shootings kind of use these incidents as flash points and really they’re indicative of greater problems that we see in the criminal justice system, which includes disparities, racial disparities, but also includes policing of certain communities.  So, for example, in the Philando Castile shooting, we now know that he was pulled over by the police, I think, 52 times, which for me as a white woman kind of like unbelievable, or something that I haven’t experienced and don’t expect to experience. And similarly, we’re also having conversations about the prevalence of guns as a result of these incidents.  So I think that the database that I’m launching can be used as a window into problems, and not only with shootings, but also [problems that] affect people in [other] ways like convictions or lesser uses of force - a baton or that sort of thing.  So in the database that I’m working with, we see kind of similar issues of disproportionality and underlying problems such as policing and pretrial practices that I think we’re learning about through the police shooting lens, but [which] we also need to think about as a broader concept as well.  

Henson:             That’s a great point about these deaths being a window onto the justice system and onto problems beyond just the shootings themselves – for example, the Castile shooting demonstrating the problems with driving while black or with a concealed carry permit holder being distrusted and ultimately shot by police.  With Sandra Bland, we had so many issues around not just the jail suicide, but around the traffic stop that put here there in the first place and all the issues around debtors’ prisons when she couldn’t make bail.  So that’s an interesting point about how these shootings are not just about the death.  They’re a way for us to look at the entire system.

Woog:                Right, and escalations don’t necessarily end in police violence, but they can end in another sort of violence, so with Sandra Bland, you brought up, she should not have been arrested.  She shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place.  Even if she hadn’t died it would have been an injustice.

Henson:             Right.  So this database is different from the police shootings data that the legislature mandated be created in 2015.  It’s broader and has been collected for much longer.  Talk to us about where this data comes from and why we haven’t had access to it before.

Woog:                Sure.  So the data is collected by the Texas Attorney General’s Office and it’s pursuant to a reporting requirement that’s completely separate from the officer-involved shootings reporting requirement that we saw enacted last legislative session, and which really is what got me looking at these issues.  This reporting requirement has been around, I think, for decades.  The data set that I have is an 11 year data set that started in 2005. And so the Attorney General’s Office has been compiling these reports, which are actually a lot more in-depth than the officer involved shooting reports.  The officer-involved shooting reports are a one page document.  These are four pages, include identifying information, and also include a narrative component, which we don’t see with the officer involved shootings.  So this data has been collected for a very long time.  The database that I obtained from the Office of the Attorney General is all the information that’s included in the report put into a single Excel spreadsheet, which is close to 7,000 entries of people who have died in police interactions and jails and prisons.  So it’s a much broader dataset in that sense and it also includes a lot more information.  The other different feature from the officer-involved shootings is that this is only deaths, so the officer involved shooting reporting includes any shooting, whether it results in injury or death and the death in custody of course only includes death.  So there’s some overlap. 

Henson:             So 7,000 Texans have died either at the hands of police, in jails, or in prisons in the past 11 years.

Woog:                So it’s actually just less than, so the final number that I had was 6,913 people are reported in this database from 2005 to 2015, so over an 11 year period.

Henson:             Wow, that is a huge number.  So tell us what you found when you delved into this.  What are some of the highlights that you’ve seen now that you’ve been looking at it and are ready to publish it?

Woog:                Sure.  So a lot of the disparities that we already know exist in the criminal justice system also show up in the custodial deaths, so 30% of the people who died were African American, 42% were white, 28% were Latino or Hispanic, in particular that 30% is over double the percentage of the African American population in Texas, which is around 12% or 12.5%.  Most of the deaths occurred in prison, which you could probably guess because that’s where people are being held the longest and we have a large prison population.  So 68% of that close-to-7,000 deaths were in prison, 16% were in police interactions, and 16% were in jail.  One kind of astonishing figure I saw was 1,942 of the people who were reported to have died in custody had not been convicted of a crime, so that includes people who died in police interactions, which are typically pre-arrest and pre-booking, but also includes people who have been arrested and are sitting in jail because they can’t afford to get out or because they’ve been denied bail for whatever reason or just waiting trial.  So it kind of points to these other issues that we already know in Texas that a lot of advocates are trying to work on right now on pretrial practices in the bail system.

Henson:             So if 68% of the deaths in custody happen in prison, let’s talk about those for a moment.  Are those people who are in there for decades and dying of old age?  Are they people who had some other illness?  What’s going on there?

Woog:                Well, I was actually surprised to find that close to half of the people who died in prison, 48%, had been in custody for less than five years. So no, it’s not necessarily people who have been incarcerated for extended periods of time. That’s not to say that they haven’t been in and out of prison.  I believe the median age for people who died in prison was 57, which is older than the populations that have died in jail, but it’s still well below the life expectancy in Texas.  So you see older [inmates dying], but people aren’t necessarily dying of old age in prison making up those numbers.

Henson:             Right.  So you said that most of the deaths in prison are labeled as natural causes death.  Is that right?

Woog:                Right.  So 90% of the prison deaths were labeled as natural causes.

Henson:             But that’s a little bit misleading because there are so many deaths in prison that may be from natural causes that there still may be some sort of [systemic] culpability.

Woog:                Exactly.

Scott Henson:     So I think of the Timothy Cole example, where he died of an asthma attack in prison. And we’ve had other people in Texas who have died from asthma attacks when the guards wouldn’t bring them an inhaler and they died of a preventable yet natural illness.  Timothy Cole would have been labeled as death by natural causes and yet his clearly was a preventable death.

Woog:                Right.  And similarly, the Human Rights Clinic at the UT School of Law has been bringing attention to heat related deaths in Texas prisons and a lot of those can be a stroke or something like that, so it’s caused by heat but ultimately that would also be labeled as natural causes, but could be something that’s entirely preventable.

Henson:             Right.  So what about jail deaths?  Tell us what patterns you’ve seen there and what are the main causes?

Woog:                So the main causes of death [in Texas jails] are natural causes at 54%, suicide at 27% and then alcohol or drug intoxication at 9%. Another interesting thing about the jail population is 76% of the people who died in jail hadn’t been convicted of a crime, so that kind of brings us back to the bail and pretrial issues that we mentioned before and 16% of those people hadn’t even been charged with a crime.

Henson:             And again, the natural causes deaths, just like in prison, may reflect someone who would have died anyway if they’d been on the outside. But quite often, it may reflect a problem with the healthcare system, with maybe not getting your drugs or not getting adequate treatment or antibiotic resistant infections.  There’s all sorts of things that natural causes might encompass where really there’s some element of responsibility by the state as well.  Not all of those natural causes deaths should just make us shrug our shoulders and say, oh, it would have happened anyway.

Woog:                Exactly.  Most cases of medical neglect would fall under the natural causes’ category.

Henson:             All right.  So the final section of your database is the one on deaths by police shootings [ed. note: really all deaths in police custody], which as you said, only includes deaths.  It’s not as broad as the other database you work on that includes folks that were shot and merely injured.  So tell us what patterns and issues are arising in the police shootings numbers.

Amanda Woog:  Sure.  So the police data includes police shootings, but it also includes anyone who died in the custody of police or in a police encounter. So that would include shootings, but it would also include if, let’s say, police are called to a suicidal subject and that person commits suicide during the interaction, then that would count.  That would be part of the custodial death database.  So 50% of the deaths in the police interactions or police custody were what’s called justifiable homicide.  This is a term I have so many problems with, but it usually is used to refer to police shootings.  (It can also include justifiable homicides by other people that are later deemed justifiable, so I think there’s a very, very small handful, l mean, like fewer than five in this database that would fall under that.)  At the same time, a police shooting that is not considered justifiable might be counted under other homicide in this database.  So there’s not actually like a very clean category for police shootings, but by and large they’re falling under this justifiable homicide banner.

                          The next greatest percentage is suicide, which was 16% of death in police encounters or interactions and then alcohol or drug intoxication, which accounted for 15% of the deaths.  And one interesting thing I found kind of across the data was when I was looking at how, let’s say, black women are dying or white men.  It actually varied a lot by demographic, what the cause of death was.  So that’s something I hope people will take a look at.  So for example, black and Hispanic women are dying at greater rates of alcohol and drug intoxication than white women and black men, white men, and Hispanic or Latino men. And white men and women are at greater risk of suicide.  So the way the data cuts is also really interesting and I think we can learn a lot from it and hopefully come up with solutions from that too.

Henson:             Well, there are a lot of interesting uses for this data set and one that recently arose was in the Dallas Morning News, our friend Brandi Grissom did a great article based on data from this AG database that you’re now publishing and discovered that the number of police shootings - I think it was specifically shootings, over time, or maybe it was deaths in total - had increased nearly double over the last decade.  Talk to us a little about those findings and what you thought about her report.

Woog:                Yeah.  I mean Brandi’s article was great and I think it illustrated one of the many things that we can do with this data.  I found the same thing that she did and that was one of the more surprising findings that I had as well is how much we have seen deaths in police encounters go up.  It’s really from like 2006 was the low point that I saw to 2015, which was the high point. Brandy and I cut our data a little bit differently, but I saw deaths in police interactions more than double from 2007 to 2015, which was really surprising. And that was largely attributable to deaths in police shootings, not entirely attributable, but largely attributable.  One interesting things that Brandi pointed out was Dallas has actually been doing a pretty good job at bringing these kinds of deaths down and Houston has been on the up kind of following the statewide trend that we saw in the data.  So I think an interesting question is what’s happening in Dallas that’s so different than what’s happening in Houston, given they’re the two largest cities in Texas and I would expect face some similar challenges?

Henson:             Right, right.  So that’s great.  Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about or is there any other aspects of the database you think folks should know about?

Woog:                Well, I hope people will go to the database and just kind of discover for themselves who’s dying in Texas’ custody, how they’re dying, and start thinking about how we can prevent these deaths, because close to 7,000 is way too many over an 11 year period and I know we can do a better job. That’s really the underlying purpose of this project is to get [the information] out there, get people looking at the data and start coming up with questions and solutions.

Henson:             So before we go, tell everybody how they can access this data and where the website is that we’re sending them to.

Woog:                Sure.  The website is And from the website there are interactive graphs and filters available so you can look at the data from different angles and see what graphs pop up that kind of give you answers to different questions you’re asking.  In addition, we also have a download-the-data feature so, as you’re filtering, if you press download the data, you’ll get a filtered data set of whatever population you’re looking at.  So let’s say you filter by male, you’ll get an Excel spreadsheet that’s all the males who are part of this database.  We decided not to include the entire database that I received from the Office of the Attorney General and that’s just because it’s kind of overwhelming and I thought it might be more useful in the initial instance for people to take a look at specific data points, but that being said, we’re definitely going to make the full data set available if anyone wants it.  So reach out through the website if you are interested in seeing the full data set.

Henson:             That’s wonderful.  Well, thank you so much for working on this and for putting this out for all of us to use.

Woog:                My pleasure Scott.  Thanks for all of your support and encouragement.

Henson:             You bet.

Transcribed by:; edited for grammar and clarity by Scott Henson.


Anonymous said...

No details given of these deaths? I guess the list is better than nothing at all, but could use details especially of those in TDC since no local media reports on them.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, there is a narrative summary of cause of death for each.

Unknown said...

Very interesting and a nice website by Ms. Woog.

A minor note. Your link to the Atlantic goes to the wrong article. Quick google shows intended link is

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fixed the link. Gracias, 9:03.

SOFAQ said...

My email to the website author:

I am posting your home page here:

Standing ovation for you!

Grits; once again you blow my mind!

Anonymous said...

Scott, the summary of death provides no details. My friend was badly beaten and had to be hospitalized, then after a couple of weeks he died. Here is the summary: On January 24, 2015, Offender Womack was pronounced deceased by medical staff at the Unit Hospice.

That's what's there. Not blaming anyone but TDC because that's the details they provided but it's far from what actually occurred. I was actually surprised to even see his name listed as the TDC website had him listed as paroled the day before his death.

Found this one while searching for my friend. Unbelievable.

Offender Womack had a bunion surgery on his right foot. On March 12, 2015, Offender Womack returned to the hospital due to swelling of his right foot. While at the hospital, Offender Womack complained the numbness of his right side. On March 14, 2015, Offender Womack was pronounced deceased by medical staff at the hospital.

Then I went through and read the summaries of many other deaths and most of them were just as ridiculous. It appears that TDC waits until an inmate is at Death's Door before they provide treatment. I'm ashamed to be an American today.

AWoog said...

@ anonymous 10:11 AM You make a very important point. Shoot me an email when you get a chance. I'm thinking about collecting additional accounts of these deaths as a next phase in the project.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@10:11, agreed that TDCJ's are thin. And leaving out a beating as a cause of death seems like a particularly salient omission. The ones on deaths in police custody tend to be more detailed.

Anonymous said...

AWoog, I wouldn't be able to provide you with any additional information. Nor was able to I get any information from TDC since I wasn't a family member. His dad hadn't spoken with him in years so he didn't care what happened. And his mom was too embarrassed of his imprisonment to get involved and ask any questions. Gary was the perfect victim..

sunray's wench said...

I'm curious as to why the stats are not broken down by gender, as they are by age and race.

AWoog said...

@sunray's wench, the stats are broken down by gender in the tables in the appendix of the report and in some of the data highlights. On the website, you can filter by gender and also download the data into a spreadsheet, which includes a column for gender.