Supporting text for researching deaths in custody.

[as of 03/15/2021]

Within the campaign #DeathInCustodyDE, the research working group has been researching deaths of Black people, People of Color and other people affected by racism in custody and due to fatal police violence in Germany since 1990 since fall 2019. In the following, we explain how we proceeded with the research, which sources we refer to and how we define the most important terms. We developed the definitions gradually in the course of the research process and in confrontation with concrete deaths in collective discussions. It is a proposal for how to capture and represent deadly, racist state violence. With this text we want to make the basis of our research transparent and also justify why we decided not to include certain borderline cases in the research.

We assume that there are very many deaths in custody and detention situations that are not yet included in our chronicle. This is because the overall data situation is very poor. There is no nationwide record of deaths in custody. Where data is available, it does not distinguish the extent to which those killed were people affected by racism. For this reason, we decided to do this research: To show that there is a void here that makes it easy for authorities to cover up problems with racism.

Our initial hypothesis is that people affected by racism have a particularly high risk of dying in state "custody". This is supported by three arguments in particular: First, this group is generally more often affected by police measures - keyword racial profiling - and interactions with the police escalate more often, since officers are more likely to use violence against Black people, People of Color, refugees and migrants. Racist checks often result in people being arbitrarily taken to the police station, which in the worst case they never leave alive. Secondly, there are crimes that only people without a German passport can commit ("illegal entry", "illegal residence"). As well as the fact that people affected by racism are more often prosecuted by the criminal justice system and punished more severely, this results in this group having a higher risk of ending up in prison compared to the white majority society. Third, there are forms of imprisonment that only affect people without a German passport. As will be shown, our documentation includes many deaths in custody pending deportation. But there are, of course, overlaps with other power relations. Police fatalities, for example, very often result in the loss of life of people who are in a psychologically exceptional situation.

We look through these documentations, evaluate them according to our criteria, combine and expand them to some extent.

What the #DeathInCustodyDE Research-AG does beyond that to get a reliable data base:

  • Networking with initiatives that work to clarify individual deaths in custody and without whose work the names of many victims of racist state violence would have been long forgotten.
  • initiate parliamentary inquiries
  • additional, targeted media research

Definition of Black, PoC, "affected by racism ".

We include all people in our research who are marked as "different" and thus potentially "criminal", "dangerous" or "illegal" due to racializing attributions. For our survey, what matters is not how the person would label themselves, but how the state and society classify them, as this is consequential for those affected. Relevant characteristics include skin color, hair color, clothing, and other perceptible and detectable characteristics such as religious symbols, language, names, nationalities, or residency status.

Definition of Detention.

Our research is based on a broad understanding of detention or custody that goes well beyond the legal concept (detention in the sense of a measure by the police that deprives someone of their liberty). To fall within our definition of death in custody, the state apparatus of violence must have played a causal role in the death. Two perspectives must be distinguished:

Spatial: The death occurred in a place where the person was held against his or her will by order of the state, such as in jail, police custody, a closed psychiatric ward, or on an airplane during a deportation. Detention also means "custody." The institutions of the state and their officials have to take care of the physical and psychological well-being of the people they deprive of their freedom. If people do not survive custody situations, the state has failed to ensure their safety and is culpable.

Actor-based: Actors of the state's violent apparatus are responsible for death. This makes it possible to include police fatal shootings, deaths caused by the physical use of force by the police, or deaths in the immediate flight from the police. In such cases, a custodial situation is created by the police's actions creating a hopeless situation from which the subject cannot escape alive. The category "physical use of force by the police" includes not only beating and suffocation to death, but also cases of emetic torture.

The spatial and actor perspectives can also overlap when a person is killed or murdered in custody by the police (Oury Jalloh). In principle, we also include deaths for which private security services with police-like powers are responsible (Tonou-Mbobda).

Several borderline cases emerged during the research:

1) Armament.

If, according to the information available to us, those killed were armed with a knife, we include these cases: First, in our view, police officer:s can be expected to be able to disarm the subjects without killing them. Second, the police's claim that there was a knife and that the use of firearms was in self-defense often turns out to be false or at least doubtful in retrospect (as in the case of Hussam Fadl, for example).

On the other hand, we leave aside cases in which, according to the information available to us, the person who was killed had a firearm himself, took hostages or otherwise deliberately put the lives of outside third parties in danger.

2) "Suicide "

In many deaths in custody or detention, the cause of death is given as "suicide". However, we assume that in a total institution (prison, police custody, closed psychiatric ward), which determines the whole life, there can be no free decision to end one's own life. Rather, the circumstances of imprisonment ensure that prisoners are systematically deprived of the will to live. That is why we record these cases as "deaths in custody." This is a finding of our comrade in the research group of the Death In Custody campaign; a finding that does not come from books, but from blood and tears in connection with the death of her incapacitated brother, who was denied care in the JVA Tegel and whom the institution let die in solitary isolation.

Another reason is that the authorities' statements are not to be trusted (see shooting). Since detention precludes outside observation or intervention, the state's agents of violence have the interpretive power over what happened. In the case of Oury Jalloh, officials also claimed that he had set himself on fire. In the meantime, however, we know through the persistent work of the Oury Jalloh Initiative that he was murdered and burned by police officers.

3) Camps

There is a great deal of overlap between large collective camps (so-called reception facilities and anchor centers) and prisons in particular: The entire daily routine is regimented, there is constant control and moderation by guard services. Theoretically, it is possible to leave the camps, but in reality the freedom of movement of the residents is severely restricted due to the secluded location and the strict residence obligation. Similar to police custody or imprisonment, guards and police officers have a high power of interpretation in conflict situations, and there is a lack of independent witnesses and external control.

We record deaths in camps when police or guards are involved in some way, such as in the course of a raid or deportation, or when there is a failure to render assistance. We do not record "suicides" and other deaths because otherwise the discriminatory power of "suicides" outside of camps but for similar motives (negative asylum decision, fear of deportation, lack of prospects) would be lost. On the subject of fatal consequences of the racist asylum system in the FRG, we refer to the excellent documentation of the Antirassistische Initiative.

From these considerations, the following categories of death in custody emerge:

A final remark: In the course of our research, we have occasionally encountered deaths that seem to us to require comment. This concerns among other things cases, in which the killed person

  • belonged to an organization whose political goals are not compatible with the anti-racist and anti-fascist claim of "Death in Custody" or
  • engaged in partnership or other forms of massive violence against uninvolved third parties.

However, the focus of our research is to make visible and scandalize racist state violence - regardless of whether those killed are sympathetic or politically close to us. For this reason, we have decided to include the individuals in the aforementioned cases in our documentation and commemoration. However, in order to make our considerations transparent, we include a short note below the commemorative texts for each of the deaths concerned.

Aims of the research

  • To make visible how frequently and continuously people affected by racism die in custody in Germany: Institutional racism kills in Germany too!
  • to remember those killed, to name their names, to tell their stories, so that the state narrative is not the only thing left - stop criminalizing victims of deadly state racism!
  • Expose patterns in deaths in custody, reveal typical circumstances and causes of death.
  • Build pressure on authorities to better record deaths in custody, especially showing the extent to which those affected were people affected by racism.

Suggested citation: Death in Custody Campaign Research Working Group, 2021, accompanying text on researching deaths in custody, available online at