Research Index

Research Index of Deaths in Custody  [updated 24.10.2020]

As part of the #DeathInCustodyDE campaign, the Research Working Group has been researching cases of deaths of Black People, people of color and other victims of institutional racism while in government custody and at the hands of the police since 1990. In the following pages we explain our research methods, which sources we rely on, and how we define key-terms.

We assume that there are many cases of deaths in government custody that are missing from our record. This is the result of a general lack of information as there is no complete record of German deaths in custody. Where there is data, the racist nature of these deaths is ignored. We conduct this research in an attempt to correct this purposeful obfuscation of information, which serves to disguise the racist and flawed nature of the justice system.

Our starting thesis is that victims of racism are at an especially high risk of death while in State “care,” for which we have three main arguments: Firstly, this group faces more police encounters in general–keyword Racial Profiling– and interractions with the police escalate more often as the police are more inclined to use violence against Black people, people of color, refugees and migrants. Racist controls often end with people being detained and taken to the Police station without cause, and in the worst cases dying in police custody. Second is the class of legal offences that exist only for those without German Passports such as “Illegal Entry,” and “Illegal Residence.” This legal code again exemplifies the criminalization of people of color. Third is the kinds of detention in which people without German Passports are held. Our documentation describes many deaths that occurred specifically within deportation prisons. Of course, other power-dynamics are also at play here, as seen in the many deaths which also involved acute psychiatric situations.

Due to the lack of adequate data as described above, we depend on a variety of surveys and documentation that we then read through, assess, combine and reformulate. Some of our sources include:

  • Documentation from Antirassistische Initiative (ARI), “German Refugee Politics and their Deadly Consequences” („Bundesdeutsche Flüchtlingspolitik und ihre tödlichen Folgen“)
  • Yearly lists of fatal police shootings published in CILIP
  • Extensive documentation of fatal police shootings from 1990 to 2017 by taz

In order to use these sources to create an accurate report, the Research Working group does the following:

  • Connects with other groups and initiatives who work with similar topics
  • Instigates Parliamentary inquiries
  • Researches individual cases in the press

Definition of Black, People of Color, and People Affected by Racism

We include in our documentation: all people who were killed as a result of their racist classification as “other” and thus “criminal,” “dangerous” or “illegal.” Our reports rely less on the victim’s self-identification, but rather on their classification as such by the State and society, as our reports are concerned with the consequences of these classifications. Relevant factors include skin color, hair color, clothes and other characteristics such as religious symbols, language, name, nationality, and immigration status.

Definition of Custody

Our research is based on a broad understanding of custody that extends beyond the legal term (detention as a custodial measure taken by the police). For our definition of death in custody to apply, the state justice apparatus must have played an essential role in the death of the victim. We describe two such scenarios:

Spatial: The death occurred in a place in which the person was held against his will by the state such as a jail, in police custody, in a psychiatric institution, or in an airplane during a deportation. Custody also includes “care.” State institutions and their employees have a duty of care to the people in their custody with regards to their physical and psychological welfare. When people don’t survive custody situations, the state has neglected to ensure their safety and is therefore culpable.

Actor dependent: Personnel of the violent state apparatus are responsible for death. They enable fatal police shootings, death from police violence, and death that results while fleeing the police. These are custody situations because the police created a situation from which the person was unable to escape alive.

These scenarios can coincide when a person in custody is killed by the police, such as Oury Jalloh. We also include deaths like that of Tonou-Mbobda, that involve private security guards, who occupy a comparable role to police officers.


While researching, several types of liminal cases emerged:

1) Armed

When, according to sources, the person killed had been armed with a knife, we include their case in our report. Firstly, we expect that the Police are capable of disarming a person without killing them. Second, Police claims that they used their firearms in self defense after seeing a knife, often turn out to be false or at the very least dubious after further investigation, as it was in the case of Hussam Fadl.

2) “Suicide”

For many cases of death in custody or detention “suicide” is listed as the cause of death. In 2017 there were 82 “suicides” recorded in German prisons (it is however unclear how many of those who died were victims of racism). We believe that in institutions such as prisons, police custody, and involuntary holds in psychiatric units, which exert complete control over the life of an individual, there can be no free will to end one’s life. Rather, the conditions of the detention ensure that the prisoner’s will to live is systematically destroyed. We therefore classify these cases as “deaths in custody.” Further, the official claims of the officials are not to be trusted. As custody precludes external observation or intervention, those who violently act on behalf of the state have complete power over the official narrative. In the case of Oury Jalloh, official reports still claim that he set himself on fire. We know, however, thanks to the dedicated work of the Oury Jalloh Initiative, that he was burned and murdered by the police.

3) Detention camps

There are many similarities between different kinds of large assembly camps including reception facilities, anchor centers and prisons. Daily routines are strictly regulated and guards constantly supervise. In the case of detention camps, called Lager in German, while residents are theoretically permitted to leave, in practice their rights are severely limited by the remote locations of the camps and the strict conditions under which they live. As with police custody or imprisonment, guard personnel and the police have complete control of the narrative in case of conflict, and there is a lack of external witnesses and oversight.

We include deaths from detention camps when they involve police or guards for example in the course of a raid or deportation, or if necessary assistance was neglected. We chose not to include “suicides” so as to avoid losing the distinction between suicides in custody and those outside of camps but for similar reasons such as rejection of requests for asylum, or fear of deportation. In regards to the deadly consequences of the racist asylum system in Germany, we refer to the excellent documentation by der Antirassistischen Initiative.

The following categories of deaths in custody result from these considerations:

  • „suicide“
  • cell fire
  • shooting
  • physical violence by police / security guards
  • failure to render assistance
  • killed while fleeing from the police
  • unclear


First Findings [As of 16.07.2020]

Two categories are especially important: Firstly, death from police violence which includes death from police fire, as well as death by beating, suffocation and emetic torture. These account for approximately a third of cases. The second category is deaths in prisons including deportation centers, which account for about half of cases in our report. “Suicide” is named as the cause of death in a large portion of deaths in prisons and detention centers.

Through examining source material one discovers that it is extremely rare that charges are brought against the (alleged) perpetrators, and that convictions are even more rare and tend to be mild. In the vast majority of cases the investigation is quickly closed, or the investigation is never opened in the first place because it is alleged that the person killed themself.

Research Aims

  • Make visible how often and continuously victims of racism die in custody: Institutional racism also kills in Germany!
  • Remember those who died, say their names, tell their stories, so that not only the state narrative remains– Enough of the criminalization of victims of deadly state violence!
  • Demonstrate and publicize a pattern of deaths in custody, and describe typical circumstances and causes of death
  • Pressure authorities so that deaths in custody are better recorded. It is especially important to make clear to what extent the victims were victims of racism.


Recommended citation: Research working group of the Death in Custody campaign, 2020, Research Index of Research of Deaths in Custody, accessible online at