More Than Half of 2015 Police Killings Not Properly Documented in Government Data

More Than Half of 2015 Police Killings Not Properly Documented in Government Data

A new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has found that over half of all police killings in 2015 were not properly documented as such in official government records.

The study was published online October 10, 2017 in PLOS Medicine. It hypothesized that the National Vital Statistics System (“NVSS”), administered by the federal Centers for Disease Control (and reliant on state death certificate data), would underreport deaths at the hands of police when compared with another, non-governmental database that tracks law enforcement-related deaths. The non-governmental database used by the researchers for this comparison was a news media-based dataset provided by The Guardian called The Counted.

The results of the study proved the hypothesis correct. According to authors Justin M. Feldman, Sofia Gruskin, Brent A. Coull, and Nancy Krieger, there were an estimated 1,166 police killings in 2015. The NVSS correctly reported a mere 45 percent of these deaths. In contrast, The Counted reported 93 percent of them.

The lack of a government database that properly tracks police-related deaths is an indication of just how poorly understood this public health problem actually is. According to the lead author Justin Feldman, the nature of the problem will not be understood without proper measurements of its scope. So the researchers sought out an alternative.

“To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances,” said Feldman. “But we also found that a different approach—compiling data from media reports—can help solve this problem.”

The core problem with the NVSS numbers is misclassification on death certificates. According to the authors, “[m]isclassification primarily occurs because the coroner or medical examiner certifying the death fails to mention police involvement in the literal text fields of the death certificate’s cause of death section.” Interestingly, the misclassification problems with NVSS do not extend to death certificates in civilian homicides. Those reports, according to Feldman, are “highly accurate.”

The misclassification problem is compounded by the hodgepodge of laws and regulations that govern coroners and medical examiners across the nation. In addition to the varying rules, Feldman observed that coroners and medical examiners “actually have a lot of professional autonomy.” While it is unclear exactly what might be behind inaccurate death certificates, Feldman suggested the issue should be further examined.

“This study didn’t look at police influence; that’s something that, hopefully, more journalists will look into,” said Feldman.

A deeper dive into the data suggests that socioeconomic and racial factors played a part in misclassification errors. According to a Harvard press release, “[m]isclassification rates for police-related deaths topped 60 percent among several groups: people under age 18, blacks, people killed by something other than a firearm (particularly Tasers, which accounted for 46 deaths), and people killed in low-income counties.”

The significant underreporting of police-related killings at the government level hobbles the ability of the public to grasp the situation. According to the authors, their findings “affirm that major shortcomings exist in official counts of law-enforcement-related deaths based on U.S. vital statistics.” In order to ameliorate the problem, the authors recommend “improving the extent and accuracy of the information recorded in death certificates,” and “expanding the types of data employed (such as media-based reports) utilized to generate official counts of these cases.”

The fact that the media does a significantly better job of simply counting the rising number of killings by police than the government does is an indication of a serious systemic problem, crying out for a solution.

“Improving public health monitoring of law-enforcement-related mortality is a critical part of efforts to ensure public accountability for these incidents and prevent future incidents,” wrote the authors. “Also warranting attention is improved monitoring of nonfatal injuries due to law enforcement, which currently are not captured by any official or media-based reporting system. Better-quality data would allow researchers to quantify various forms of social inequality that may be linked to law-enforcement-related mortality (e.g., differences by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic position, and gender identity), compare rates between jurisdictions, and identify whether incidence is increasing or decreasing over time.”


Originally published in Criminal Legal News on January 19, 2018.