Undercounting US Civilians Killed by Police

An additional 17,000 deaths occurred over a four-decade period, the authors say, citing their own research.

The names of the dead. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

By Moshen Naghavi, Eve Wool and Fablina Sharara
The Conversation 

The number of people killed by police officers in the U.S. has been massively underreported in official statistics over the past four decades, with an additional 17,000 deaths over that period, according to our new research.

Our study, which was published on Oct. 2 in The Lancet, compared statistics from the National Vital Statistics System, a federal database that looks at death certificates, with data from three nongovernmental organizations that more accurately track police violence: Mapping Police Violence, Fatal Encounters, and The Counted.

We found more than 30,000 deaths from police violence between 1980 and 2018. During that time, the National Vital Statistics System underreported fatal police violence by 55.5 percent.

The figures confirm that fatal police violence in the United States disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and Hispanic people compared with white Americans. Black Americans were 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans over the study period. Indigenous and Hispanic Americans were nearly twice as likely to be killed at the hands of law enforcement as white Americans.

Since 1980, the racial disparities in rates of fatal police violence have remained largely unchanged or worsened in some cases, according to our figures.

Why it Matters

Police violence, like all violence, can be prevented.

The systemic racism that drives police violence is a threat to public health. We hope that our estimates of the underreporting of police violence will spur improvements to the accurate reporting of police violence in the death investigation system.

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This study was one of the longest of its kind and covers all 50 states by race and ethnicity. As such, we also hope the comprehensive estimates as well as the existing nongovernmental data can be used for targeted, meaningful changes to policing and public safety that will prevent loss of life by highlighting areas of concern.

What Still Isn’t Known

This paper does not calculate or address non-fatal injuries attributed to police violence, police officers killed by civilians, police violence in overseas U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, or residents who may have been harmed by military police in the United States or abroad.

Because this study relied on death certificates, which only allow for a binary designation of sex, we were unable to estimate fatal police violence against non-cisgender people, potentially masking the disproportionately high rates of violence against trans people, particularly Black trans people.

What’s Next

Next, our research group is working on a publication on global fatal violence to increase the body of literature on violence as a public health issue.

We also will continue to review police violence estimates produced by the Global Burden of Disease study for all locations to improve reporting on this cause of death.

Finally, we will work to improve cause of death data quality to make the best information available for public health interventions.The Conversation

Moshen Naghavi is professor of health metric science at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington; Eve Wool is research manager at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, and Fablina Sharara is a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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3 comments for “Undercounting US Civilians Killed by Police

  1. Aaron
    October 7, 2021 at 20:28

    Most definitely, no doubt! Whenever I watch one of those videos of the police brutality, one immediately gets a sick feeling, just imagining how very, very many unarmed and innocent folks were killed and unjustly treated by dirty cops BEFORE everybody had a cell phone on them to catch them in the act. We’ll never know how many, but surely it’s a very high number.

  2. dag
    October 7, 2021 at 03:43

    This analysis is deeply flawed. While focusing entirely on “racial bias,” it is missing perhaps the most important variable when it comes to police violence, which is whether or not force is justified. Anyone who has taken any amount of time to objectively examine controversial police shootings such as the Jacob Blake incident or Andrew Brown Jr. or Makiah Bryant or Adam Toledo would have to come to the conclusion that the use of force was at least understandable considering the totality of the circumstances if not 100% justified.

    People pushing the narrative that police are out there simply targeting people because they are black are doing a huge disservice. The color of people shot by police actually does not matter what bit — what matters is whether the police used excessive force or whether the use of force was necessary, appropriate and justifiable. Therefore, for this analysis to be worth the paper it’s written on, these “social scientists” should take a bit of time to at least attempt to qualify these incidents as “justified,” “unjustified,” and “semi-justified.” From what I can tell the authors of this piece haven’t made the slightest effort to do so.

    • sher singh
      October 8, 2021 at 11:53


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