More than half of police killings in the U.S. are not reported in official government data, and Black Americans are most likely to experience fatal police violence, according to a new study released Thursday.
An estimated 55% of deaths from police violence from 1980 to 2018 were misclassified or unreported in official vital statistics reports, according to the peer-reviewed study by a group of more than 90 collaborators in The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most renowned medical journals.
Previous studies have found similar rates of underreporting, but the new paper is one of the longest study periods to date.
Researchers compared data from the U.S. National Vital Statistics System, an inter-governmental system that collates all death certificates, to three open-source databases on fatal police violence: Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence and The Counted. The databases collect information from news reports and public record requests.
Government data did not report 17,100 deaths from police violence
Researchers estimated official government data did not report 17,100 deaths from police violence out of 30,800 total deaths during the nearly 40-year period, speculating the gap is a result of a mixture of clerical errors and more insidious motivations.
During that period, non-Hispanic Black Americans were estimated to be 3.5 times more likely to die from police violence than non-Hispanic white Americans, with nearly 60% of these deaths misclassified – meaning they are not attributed to police violence – in official government data, researchers found.
Vital statistics reports are often used to inform health policy, and inaccurate data minimizes the problem of police violence and limits the reach of justice and accountability, Fablina Sharara, one of the lead authors and a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told USA TODAY.
“Recent high-profile police killings of Black people have drawn worldwide attention to this urgent public health crisis, but the magnitude of this problem can’t be fully understood without reliable data,” Sharara said in a press release. “Inaccurately reporting or misclassifying these deaths further obscures the larger issue of systemic racism that is embedded in many U.S. institutions, including law enforcement.”
Government data also misclassified 50% of deaths of Hispanic people, 56% of deaths of non-Hispanic white people and 33% of deaths of non-Hispanic people of other races, researchers found.
Similar to previous studies, the researchers found that, behind non-Hispanic Black people, non-Hispanic Indigenous people were killed by police at a higher rate than other groups. Non-Hispanic Indigenous people were estimated to be 1.8 times more likely to die from police violence than non-Hispanic white people, the researchers found.
From the 1980s to the 2010s, rates of police violence increased by 38% for all races, researchers found.
Eve Wool, a lead author and a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said the rise is evidence that efforts to prevent police violence and address systemic racism, such as body-worn cameras and de-escalation and implicit bias training for officers, have “largely been ineffective.”
The top five states with the highest underreporting rates were Oklahoma, Wyoming, Alabama, Louisiana and Nebraska, the researchers found. The states with the highest mortality rate of police violence were Oklahoma, Washington, D.C., Arizona, Alaska, Nevada and Wyoming.
Deaths due to police violence were significantly higher for men than women, with 30,600 deaths in men and 1,420 deaths in women from 1980 to 2019, according to researchers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics produces national health statistics based on the National Vital Statistics System. The CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to the requests for comment.
‘Substantial conflicts of interest’
The researchers suggested the underreporting is related to “several factors” and offered solutions for collecting more accurate data and, ultimately, eliminating police violence.
Part of the issue may be clerical, the researchers said. The coroner or medical examiner may fail to indicate police involvement in a death certificate’s cause of death section or make errors in the process of assigning certain codes, the researchers said.
Some coroners and medical examiners may also feel “substantial conflicts of interest” that disincentivize them from indicating law enforcement involvement in a death, as many work for or are embedded within police departments and many feel political or occupational pressure to disguise police culpability.
The researchers cited a 2011 survey of National Association of Medical Examiners members that found 22% of respondents reported having been pressured by an elected official or appointee to change cause or manner of death on a certificate.
Improved training and clearer instructions on how to document police violence on death certificates could improve reporting, the researchers said. They also suggested forensic pathologists should work independently from law enforcement and should be awarded whistleblower protections under the law.
“Currently, the same government responsible for this violence is also responsible for reporting on it,” Sharara said. “Open-sourced data is a more reliable and comprehensive resource to help inform policies that can prevent police violence and save lives.”
The researchers said America’s history of systemic racism and militarized police forces underlie the high rates of police violence in the U.S.
“To respond to this public health crisis, the USA must replace militarised policing with evidenced-based support for communities, prioritize the safety of the public, and value Black lives,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers noted 19 nations, including Norway and the United Kingdom, do not arm police officers or only arm select officers.
“The difference these practices have on loss of life is staggering: no one died from police violence in Norway in 2019, and three people were recorded to have died in England and Wales from police violence between 2018 and 2019,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers said the study has multiple limitations. The study did not calculate nonfatal injuries attributed to police violence, police violence in U.S. territories, or residents who may have been harmed by military police in the U.S. or abroad. And every state was missing some ethnicity data.
The researchers also noted their approach relied on data from death certificates, which only allow for a binary designation of sex. The approach, the researchers said, erases the existence of noncisgender people and masks the disproportionately high rates of police violence against transgender people, particularly Black transgender people.
The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Fatal Encounters, run by journalist and researcher, D. Brian Burghart, “attempts to document all deaths that happen when police are present or that are caused by police: on-duty, off-duty, criminal, line-of-duty, local, federal, intentional, accidental” going back to 2000. The database has three main methods of collecting information: paid researchers, public records requests and verified crowdsourced data.
Mapping Police Violence is “an independent research collaborative collecting comprehensive data on police killings nationwide” since 2013 using official police use of force data collection programs combined with nationwide data from Fatal Encounters and original research on social media, obituaries, criminal records databases, police reports and other sources.
The Counted was project by The Guardian documenting the people killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016 using Guardian reporting and verified crowdsourced information.