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Nearly 7,000 died in Texas state custody in past decade, new database shows

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office had 78 people die in custody in the past 10 years, more than 80 percent listed as suicide, illness or natural causes, according to the Texas Justice Initiative.

SAN ANTONIO – Nearly 7,000 people died in prison, jail, police custody or in interactions with officers in Texas over the past decade, according to the Texas Justice Initiative, which launched its interactive website this week.

The information, collected by the Texas Attorney General since 2005, is now online for the first time and could lead to public policy changes.

“We’ve heard everyone from the FBI director to the president to people locally talking about how it’s hard to get to the bottom of the problem when we don’t really have good reporting happening,” said Amanda Woog, project director for the Texas Justice Initiative.

Woog is also a postdoctoral legal fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.

She noted deaths in police encounters increasing in Texas in recent years, with 2015 having the highest number.

“It kind of blew me away how there’s so much public information that just isn’t made publicly accessible,” Woog said.

The database is easily searchable, allowing users to filter by gender, race, age, cause of death and agency or facility. The website also provides the official summary attached to each death.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office had 78 people die in custody in the past 10 years, more than 80 percent listed as suicide, illness or natural causes, according to the Texas Justice Initiative.

“90 percent of the deaths that occurred in prison were from ‘natural causes or illnesses’ but because of the lack of details and specifics that we have in these reports, we can’t really tell if they’re instances of medical neglect or whether these deaths could have been prevented,” Woog said.

A total of 126 people died in the custody of the San Antonio Police Department since 2005. Nearly half of those were listed as justifiable homicide, “the term usually used to refer to homicide by police, but also included homicides by other people that were deemed justifiable,” according to the website.

Woog said the goal of sharing the data is to reduce the number of deaths in state custody.

“Having a grasp of how many people we’re talking about and how they’re dying will help us come up with targeted solutions,” Woog said.

She said some of the solutions could come from state lawmakers. They could pass legislation, for example, that would change bond practices, improve medical care and lead to imprisoning fewer people.

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