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More than half of US police killings are unreported in federal database, study says

Researchers estimated more than 17,000 deaths caused by police violence were unreported or mislabeled in official government data since 1980.
Credit: Andrew - stock.adobe.com

WASHINGTON — A new study on police violence found that more than half of all deaths caused by police in the U.S. were unreported or mislabeled in a key federal database. 

Researchers published their findings this week in The Lancet medical journal and also found that Black people were 3.5 times more likely to die from police violence than white Americans.

From 1980-2018, researchers estimate the U.S. National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) failed to report or accurately classify 17,100 deaths that were caused by police violence. Overall, it means an estimated 55% of deaths from police violence during that nearly 40-year time frame were underreported, according to the study. 

Researchers compared data from NVSS, the government system that collates all death certificates in the U.S., to three non-government open-source databases on fatal police violence. 

“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," the study's co-lead author. Fablina 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 US institutions, including law enforcement. Currently, the same government responsible for this violence is also responsible for reporting on it." 

The Lancet, where the peer-reviewed study was published, is one of the oldest medical journals in the world, founded in 1823

The researchers theorized the under-reporting is related to "several factors," including medical examiners making simple clerical errors or failing to indicate police involvement in specific sections of a death certificate. But they also noted a potential conflict of interest exists in the overall system because many medical examiners or coroners either work for or are embedded within police departments. 

The study found the top five states with the highest under-reporting rates for police violence deaths were Oklahoma (83.7%), Wyoming (79.1%), Alabama (76.9%), Louisiana (75.7%) and Nebraska (72.9%). 

Co-lead author Eve Wool said using open-source data collection to keep an accurate count of deaths caused by police is a good first step, but declared we need to do more as a community. 

"As our data show, fatal police violence rates and the large racial disparities in police killings have either remained the same or increased over the years," Wool, a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), said in a press release. "Policymakers should look to other countries, such Norway and the UK, where police forces have been de-militarized and use evidence-based strategies to find effective solutions that prioritize public safety and community-based interventions to reduce fatal police violence."