New study of police killings confirms what activists have said for years

There is no guarantee that a U.S. citizen who is killed by a police officer will be recorded their death.
Many activists are Black, Latino and Indigenous and have been claiming for years that police officers kill their family members, friends and neighbors. However, officials fail to accurately report the cause of death. The fatality could be due to heart disease or sickle cells trait. Sometimes, coroners and medical examiners embedded in police departments may feel pressured to list other causes than violence. Sometimes, because they lack the proper training or standards, they do not properly identify the cause of death.

The Lancet published a new study that shows the huge gap between what the federal government counts as police killings and what the people in their communities see. According to the researchers, more than 55% of these incidents (or 17,100 deaths) occurred between 1980-2018. The researchers also discovered that Black Americans were more likely to be the victims of police violence. They were 3.5x more likely to be shot by police officers than white Americans.

Researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation led the study. The research team used data from the National Vital Statistics System to compare them with estimates of police violence produced by non-governmental open-source databases Fatal Encounters and Mapping Police Violence. These projects attempted to track the killings of police officers in all 50 states using public records requests and media reports. Past research has shown that open-source databases like Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence, and The Counted can be extremely accurate.

According to the study, the U.S. should replace "militarised police with evidence-based community support," prioritise the safety of the public and "value Black Lives."

"We believe the U.S. should invest in police violence solutions that are led and governed by Black, Hispanic, or Indigenous communities."

"We believe the U.S. should really invest in solutions to violence against police that are led by Black and Hispanic communities," Eve Wool (co-lead author and research manager at IHME) said in an interview.

This is just one of several recent attempts to quantify the undercounting police killings. Harvard researchers found that more than half of all police deaths in 2015 were not recorded by the government when they compared data from Fatal Encounters and National Vital Statistics System. Particularly high misclassification rates were found for Blacks, people living in poverty, victims of other than firearms, youth aged 18 and under, and those who lived in rural areas.

Justin M. Feldman is a social epidemiologist and Harvard FXB Center for Health & Human Rights Fellow. He peer-reviewed the Lancet study before publication and stated to Mashable that it offers a convincing estimate of undercounted death.

His research further adds to these findings by projecting the disparity over a period of decades as opposed to one year and by estimating deaths based on race and ethnicity at state level. The five states with the highest underreporting rate were Oklahoma, Wyoming and Louisiana during the study period. The lowest rates were found in Maryland, Utah and New Mexico, Massachusetts and Oregon.

Feldman called the decades-long estimate for uncounted deaths a "best guess" Feldman described the decades-long estimate of uncounted deaths as a "best guess" because the open-source data collectively includes deaths between 2000 and 2019. The researchers used statistical regression to create a historical estimate of fatalities that dates back as far as 1980. This was then compared with government data.

The assumption that underreporting has remained constant over time led to the discovery that 17,100 of 30,800 deaths had not been reported or were misclassified.

Feldman pointed out that the study may have understated the problem due to the fact that coroners or medical examiners could have missed or misclassified more deaths in the past decades than they did in recent years. This is because there has been increasing pressure from both the public and health departments to account for police-related deaths.

Feldman stated that the findings show the need to develop policies that increase the accuracy of reporting on police killings and prevent them from happening in the first instance.

He stated that "we still don't have good government systems tracking the killings of police officers in 2021."

Feldman suggested that U.S. death certificates could include a checkbox for a medical examiner or coroner to indicate whether the deceased died while being held by police officers or in custody. Although it wouldn't necessarily mean that police caused the death of the person, checking the box could prompt government officials to review the matter.

Feldman stated that the Justice Department used artificial intelligence during the Obama administration to search the internet for media reports about deaths in police custody. Then, the Justice Department surveyed local officials to find out more information. Feldman suggested that the program should be revived. The Trump administration seems to have abandoned it. Feldman also pointed out that the federal agency could withhold some government grants from police departments if they fail to report deaths in custody.

"We still don't have a good government-run system tracking police killings in 2021."

Karin D. Martin is an assistant professor at University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance. She has researched policy solutions for police violence. Martin was not involved in the research, and is not affiliated with the IHME.

Martin states that in order to prevent police killings, one must have a thorough understanding of how the widespread availability and possession of firearms in the U.S. can create a culture where law enforcement may view any interaction with the public in this way as potentially life-threatening. This includes looking at why certain communities are so over- or under-policed and why some people have such a high level of suspicion. It also involves understanding how police departments set rules, such as whether officers can shoot suspects fleeing non-violent crimes or whether they can engage with high-speed chases.

Martin stated, "I believe it's very complex problem, that it needs to be taken into account both the environment law enforcement officers encounter, the history of policing and the racial problems that have plagued this nation for a long time."