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Number of People Dying in Texas Police Custody ‘Really Jarring’

Teddy Wilson

“I think this story is really a story that we’ve known for a long time which is that too many people are incarcerated,” said Amanda Woog, a postdoctoral legal fellow and Texas Justice Initiative project director. “The other story that is emerging is that a lot of folks have known for some time too, which is that too many people are incarcerated pre-conviction.”

Nearly 7,000 people have died over the past decade while in police custody in Texas, according to a report by the Texas Justice Initiative (TJI). About 1,900 of those people had not been convicted of a crime. 

Many had not even been charged with a crime.

The TJI report analyzed data collected and published as part of a project by the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.

Unlike people who are executed by the state, which the report notes is “painstakingly documented,” the accounts of those who die while in custody are not widely known. “They occur at every point and phase of our criminal justice system, in a manner that remains largely untracked and unexamined,” the report’s authors wrote. 

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From 2005-2015, there were 6,913 people who died while in police custody in Texas. The number of deaths in police custody has increased over the years. There were 683 in 2015, the highest number of deaths in a single year during the ten-year span, during which there was an average of 623 deaths per year.

Amanda Woog, a postdoctoral legal fellow and TJI project director, told Rewire that the sheer number of people who have died in custody in Texas has been “really jarring for people,” and that the data shines a light on Texas’ incarceral state. 

“I think this story is really a story that we’ve known for a long time which is that too many people are incarcerated,” Woog said. “The other story that is emerging is that a lot of folks have known for some time too, which is that too many people are incarcerated pre-conviction.”

The report found that racial disparities present in the state’s criminal justice system “generally translate into racial disparities in custodial mortality.”

While Black people comprise 12 percent of the Texas population, they account for 30 percent of custodial deaths. Forty-two percent (2,872) of those who died in custody were white, 28 percent (1,915) were Hispanic and 1 percent (66) were from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The different categories of deaths while in custody mirror the categories used in the custodial death report.

Under Texas law, when a person dies in police custody, in jail or prison, or as the result of a police officer’s use of force, it is required that the law enforcement agency “file a written report of the cause of death” to the Texas Attorney General’s office.

The attorney general’s office has collected the information contained in those reports and published the results in a single database since 2005. The overwhelming majority of deaths were reported as natural causes.

Wong told the Texas Tribune that if the 4,870 deaths reported from natural causes were examined further, the explanation of those deaths may change how they would be categorized.

“If someone wasn’t charged, then maybe the person filling out the form didn’t think they could say that a homicide had occurred,” Woog said. “But the injuries might be consistent with someone having been attacked.” 

There were 772 (11 percent) deaths due to suicide, 573 (8 percent) people who died due to “justifiable homicide,” 275 (4 percent) who died from alcohol or drug intoxication, 255 (4 percent) who died for other reasons, and 168 (2 percent) who died from an accidental injury.

Maya Schenwar, editor in chief of Truthout and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, told Rewire that the number of in-custody deaths in Texas “does seem like a high number.”

“One of the things that this documents, and is so important to recognize, is that this is not just people going [into prison] and dying of natural causes,” Schenwar said. People who are incarcerated “are more likely to die in a situation that a is result of [medical] neglect or suicide or than they are on the outside.”

The TJI report highlights the number of those who have died while in custody without being convicted of a crime. Many had not been charged with any crime.

Pretrial and bail policies have resulted in tens of thousands of people spending time in Texas jails without being convicted of a crime. Of the 63,989 inmates being held in Texas county jails in 2014, 38,745 inmates (60.55 percent) were being detained pre-trial, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards annual report

The report found that 76 percent of 1,111 deaths in local jails were people not convicted of a crime and 16 percent of those people had yet to even be charged with a crime. 

The number of people who have died prior to booking or in the process of an arrest increased by 84 percent over the last ten years, from 83 deaths in 2005 to 153 deaths in 2015.

Woog told Rewire that the 573 reports of “justifiable homicides” over the past ten years present a challenge to analyzing the data because the state does not define the term in the individual reports.

“It is a term that I think we need to move past, at least when we’re talking about data collection for police involved shootings,” Woog said. “It’s kind of turned into a proxy term in reporting for ‘officer involved shootings,’ but from a data collection point of view it’s not a perfect proxy by any means.”   

As noted by the report’s authors, the term “justifiable homicide” “appears conclusory when it is not clear who made the decision that it was justifiable.” The term is both “under inclusive and over inclusive with respect to officer-involved shootings.” 

Nearly all of the incidents of so-called justifiable homicide occurred prior to booking and without any charges filed: 562 (98 percent) of deaths that were deemed “justifiable homicides” occurred prior to booking and 530 (92 percent) of justifiable homicides happened to people who had not been charged with a crime.

There were two justifiable homicides in prisons and nine justifiable homicides in jails. There were three justifiable homicides of people who had been convicted of a crime, six justifiable homicides of those who were on parole, and 34 justifiable homicides of individuals who were the subject of criminal charges.

Schenwar told Rewire that the report highlights something that is “very pervasive in the system,” and that there is a need to examine the problem of medical and mental health neglect in jails and prisons. 

“Prison causes death in so many different ways and a lot of them are ways in which we might not be able to directly document,” Schenwar said. “Looking at these data sets you might not be able to say that ‘prison killed this person,’ but you can start looking at them and realize that they might be much more likely to die while incarcerate because of these reasons that can’t be connected dot to dot.”

Woog told the Texas Tribune that information will help inform the public discussion on police brutality and violence within the criminal justice system.

“We can’t have an informed conversation about who’s dying at the hands of police or who’s dying in jails if we don’t literally know who’s dying and how they’re dying,” Woog told the Tribune. “I think this information can help us get to the bottom causes of mortality in the criminal justice system and with that lead us to solutions.”

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