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Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth

Deaths resulting from interactions with the US criminal legal system are a public health emergency, but the scope of this issue is intentionally ignored by the very systems that are supposed to be tracking these fatalities. We don't know how many people die in custody each year, whether in an encounter with police on the street, during transport, or while in jails, prisons, or detention centers. In order to make a real difference and address this human rights problem, researchers and policy makers need reliable data.


In Death in Custody, Roger A. Mitchell Jr., MD, and Jay D. Aronson, PhD, share the stories of individuals who died in custody and chronicle the efforts of activists and journalists to uncover the true scope of deaths in custody. From Ida B. Wells's enumeration of extrajudicial lynchings more than a century ago to the Washington Post's current effort to count police shootings, the work of journalists and independent groups has always been more reliable than the state's official reports. Through historical analysis, Mitchell and Aronson demonstrate how government at all levels has intentionally avoided reporting death in custody data.



Mitchell and Aronson outline a practical, achievable system for accurately recording and investigating these deaths. They argue for a straightforward public health solution: adding a simple checkbox to the US Standard Death Certificate that would create an objective way of recording whether a death occurred in custody. They also propose the development of national standards for investigating deaths in custody and the creation of independent regional and federal custodial death review panels. These tangible solutions would allow us to see the full scope of the problem and give us the chance to truly address it.


Deaths resulting from interactions with the US criminal legal system are a public health emergency, but the scope of this issue is intentionally ignored by the very systems that are supposed to be tracking these fatalities. We don't know how many people die in custody each year, whether in an encounter with police on the street, during transport, or while in jails, prisons, or detention centers. In order to make a real difference and address this human rights problem, researchers and policy makers need reliable data.

 

The NAACP Image Award nominated podcast, “Official Ignorance: The Death in Custody” – hosted by Dr. Roger Mitchell and Prof. Jay Aronson – shares the stories of individuals who died in custody and chronicles the efforts of activists and journalists to uncover the true scope of deaths in custody. Through their accounts and interactions with special guests, Mitchell and Aronson outline a practical, achievable system for accurately recording and investigating these deaths.



“Official Ignorance” is a project of the Hip Hop Caucus. Learn more about Hip Hop Caucus and its Good Trouble Dept. campaign work at HipHopCaucus.org.

 

Dr. Mitchell is board-certified in Anatomic and Forensic Pathology by the American Board of Pathology and is a tenured Professor of Pathology at Howard University College of Medicine. He currently serves as the Chief Medical Officer for the Howard University Ambulatory Care Center and the Medical Director for the Center of Excellence in Trauma and Violence Prevention at Howard University. He is the immediate past Chief Medical Examiner for Washington, DC where he served from 2014 to 2021. Just before his tenure ended as Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Mitchell was the only forensic pathologist in history to also serve in a dual role as Interim Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice.  


He has performed over 2000 forensic autopsy examinations and has testified as an expert witness in over 65 cases. Dr. Mitchell has been published in 14 peer-reviewed journals and has provided over 100 lectures on a myriad of topics on forensic medicine and violence prevention. In 2017, Mitchell led a national group of forensic pathologists in authoring the paper entitled: National Association of Medical Examiners Position Paper: Recommendations for the Definition, Investigation, Postmortem Examination, and Reporting of Deaths in Custody. His expertise on Death in Custody has recently been highlighted nationally on “Dateline with Lester Holt” and “Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.” He has recently co-authored the book, Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do About It.

 

Dr. Mitchell is the current Speaker to the House of Delegates for the National Medical Association, the oldest and largest society for Black physicians. Dr. Mitchell currently serves as the Principal Investigator supporting the Medicolegal Death Investigation International Community of Practice funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the CDC Foundation. He has established a technical support network for numerous international medical examiners and coroners. Dr. Mitchell has lectured worldwide, including in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean including Egypt, Bangladesh, India, Rwanda, Zambia, Barbados, and Belize. 

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