New study reveals 17,000 underreported police deaths since 1980

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Researchers at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) found that in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018, over 17,000 deaths resulting from police violence were either incorrectly classified or unreported.

Another way of stating it is that over half of the people killed by police between 1980 and 2019 were not included in official statistics published by the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS).

The IHME study, published in the British medical journal Lancet last week, underscores the crisis of police violence in the U.S. and reveals that Black people were even more disproportionately impacted than previously thought.

The research provided one of the most thorough and comprehensive looks at the issue of police violence. It revealed what some have intrinsically known or at least suspected. The report also revealed that Blacks were three and half times more likely to be victimized by police violence than Whites.

“We have gotten push-back from the far-right groups saying it’s not that bad,” said Minneapolis resident Jim Handrigan. “But come to find out, it’s not just bad, but it’s worse than we first thought.”

“This report asks what are we going to do to address this violence,” said Alexes Harris, professor of sociology at the University of Washington. “We can no longer hide behind the fact that we don’t have the numbers.”

According to the report, deaths due to police violence of people who are Black Non-Hispanic Americans were the most likely to go unrecorded in U.S. official statistics compared to other racial and ethnic groups

Co-lead author of the study, Fablina Sharara, shared her theory on why police killings were underreported. “The same government responsible for this violence is also responsible for reporting on it,” she said. “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.”

The authors, along with fellow researchers from the University of Washington IHME in an article entitled “Ending Police Violence in America,” wrote that anti-police violence protests of 2020 prompted them to re-evaluate the accuracy of their previous estimates of police violence.

“These changes were long overdue,” they wrote. “Since first publishing our findings as part of the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD) in 2012, we continually missed approximately half of all deaths from police violence in the U.S. by relying solely on NVSS data to inform our estimates.”

They noted that in their previous GBD study they failed to include 14,200 deaths, or about 55% of fatal encounters with police between 1980 and 2017, because another cause of death was listed on the death certificate. The additional deaths were found as a result of data from three nongovernmental organizations that more accurately track police violence: Mapping Police Violence, Fatal Encounters, and The Counted. These groups track police killings through news reports and public record requests.

“Our underreporting of police violence in the GBD was both a cause and consequence of structural racism within our institute and the field of public health,” they wrote, “the same structural racism that influences so many U.S. institutions including law enforcement.

Researchers discovered that some of the misclassified deaths occurred because medical examiners failed to mention law enforcement’s involvement on the death certificate.

Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of IHME, told news sources that the fact that deaths at the hands of the police aren’t showing up in official statistics may “point to the system of medical examiners.” According to Murray, they may have incentives unknown to the public for failing to classify a death as related to police violence.

Murray added, “One of the starkest findings was that racial disparities in police shootings have widened since 2000.”

The researchers pointed out in their article that accountability is necessary to address police violence in the United States to deter officers from using excessive force. “Beyond the legal system,” they wrote, “police union reforms are needed to save lives. For example, in a preliminary study, researchers at the University of Victoria and Cornell found a link between police collective bargaining and rising numbers of killings of racial and ethnic minority groups.”

Co-lead researcher Eve Wool observed, “Efforts to prevent police violence and address systemic racism in the USA, including body cameras that record interactions of police with civilians along with de-escalation training and implicit bias training for police officers, for example, have largely been ineffective.”

IHME researchers concluded that “police violence is a mounting threat to public health in the United States, especially for Black Americans. As our nation reckons with our 400-year history of Black Americans being ‘violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all,’ we must confront systemic racism in all aspects of policing.”