New study on police murders confirms what activists have been saying for years


When a person in the United States is killed by a police officer, there is no guarantee that their death will be recorded as such.

This reality comes as no surprise to activists, many of whom are black, Latino and indigenous, who have said for years that their relatives, friends and neighbors are being killed by police officers, but officials fail to accurately report the cause of the crime. their death. . Instead, the death could be attributed to causes such as heart disease Where sickle cell trait. Sometimes coroners or medical examiners are integrated into police services and may be pressured to list a cause other than police violence. In other cases, they do not correctly cite the cause of death due to poor standards or training.

A new study published in the Lancet illustrates the great disparity between the federal government’s tally of police murders and what people see happening in their own communities. Researchers estimate that between 1980 and 2018, more than 55% of these incidents, or 17,100 deaths, were misclassified or unreported in official statistics. They also found that black Americans disproportionately suffered deadly police violence. They were 3.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than white Americans.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Institute for Health Measurement and Evaluation (IHME). The research team took numbers from the National Vital Statistics System, which tracks every death certificate in the United States, and compared them to estimates of police violence generated by open-source, non-government databases. Fatal encounters, Mapping police violence, and The account. These projects have sought to track murders of police officers in all 50 states through requests for public documents and media reports, and previous research has shown that such open source databases can be very specific.

The study’s authors concluded that the United States must replace “militarized policing with evidence-based support for communities”, prioritize public safety and “value the lives of black people.”

“We believe the United States should really invest in solutions to police violence led by Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities. ”

“We believe the United States should really invest in solutions to police violence led by Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities,” said Eve Wool, co-lead author of the study and director of research at IHME. , in an interview.

The study is one of the few recent efforts to quantify the undercoverage of police murders. In 2017, Harvard researchers compared data from Fatal Encounters to figures from the National Vital Statistics System and similarly found that the government did not record more than half of police murders in 2015. Rates of misclassification were particularly high for blacks, people living in poor counties, victims killed other than with a gun, and youth 18 and under.

Social epidemiologist Justin M. Feldman, lead author of the 2017 study and health and human rights researcher at the Harvard FXB Center for Health & Human Rights, peer reviewed the Lancet study before it was published and told Mashable it provided a compelling estimate of undercounted deaths.

The research adds to its findings by projecting the disparity over decades, as opposed to a single year, and estimating deaths by race and ethnicity at the state level. During the study period, the five states with the highest underreporting rates were Oklahoma, Wyoming, Alabama, Louisiana, and Nebraska. The states with the lowest rates were Maryland, Utah, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Oregon.

Feldman described the estimate of decades of uncounted deaths as a “best estimate.” Since open source databases collectively reflect deaths that occurred between 2000 and 2019, the researchers produced a historical estimate of deaths dating back to 1980 by using statistical regression to compare these numbers with government data.

Their conclusion – that 17,100 out of 30,800 deaths were unreported or misclassified – is based on the assumption that the underreporting rate has remained stable over time.

Feldman noted that the study is likely to have underestimated the extent of the problem given that coroners and medical examiners may have omitted or misclassified many more deaths decades ago compared to recent years, when there was increasing pressure from the public as well as health services to account for deaths caused by police violence.


Police murders are a mental health crisis for black people. They deserve real solutions.

The findings underscore the need for policy solutions that improve the accurate reporting of police murders and prevent those deaths in the first place, Feldman said.

“We still don’t have, in 2021, good government-run systems to track police murders,” he said.

Feldman suggested that death certificates in the United States could include a checkbox where a coroner or medical examiner would indicate whether the person died during an encounter with police or while in custody. Checking the box would not mean the police caused the death, but could trigger further scrutiny by government officials.

Feldman said that during the Obama administration, a Justice Department initiative used artificial intelligence to browse the web for media reports related to the deaths in custody, then interviewed local authorities to find out more about what happened. The program seems to have languished during the Trump administration, but Feldman said it should be revived. He also noted that the the federal agency may withhold part of government grants from police services if they do not report deaths in custody.

“We still don’t have, in 2021, good government-run systems to track police murders.”

Karin D. Martin, an assistant professor at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington who has studied policy solutions for police violence, said the latest research confirms what is generally known about police violence. undercounted deaths and how black Americans are disproportionately killed by officers. (Martin was not involved in the research and has no affiliation with the IHME.)

Martin says preventing police murders requires a thorough understanding of how the widespread availability and possession of firearms in the United States creates a culture in which law enforcement can perceive any interaction with the public. as potentially fatal and may react violently accordingly. It also means examining issues such as why communities are over or under guarded, why basic suspicion of people in some communities is so high, and how rules set by law enforcement agencies, such as whether officers can shoot on a suspect fleeing a non-violent crime or if they can engage in high-speed pursuits, can contribute to police murders.

“I think this is a very complex problem, and that it has to take into account both the environment that law enforcement officers face and the history of law enforcement in this area. country, as well as the racial issues that have plagued this country forever, ”Martin said.

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