Study Says Official Count Of Police Killings Is More Than 50% Lower Than The Actual Number
from the but-the-real-numbers-make-us-look-even-worse! dept
In 2019, the FBI claimed to be compiling the first-ever database of police use of force, including killings of citizens by officers. It was, of course, not the first-ever database of police killings. Multiple databases have been created (some abandoned) prior to this self-congratulatory announcement to track killings by police officers.
What this database would have, however, is information on use of force, which most private databases didn’t track. Whether or not it actually does contain this info is difficult to assess, since the FBI’s effort does not compile these reports in any easily-accessible manner, nor does it provide readable breakdowns of the data — something it does for other things, like crimes against police officers.
It also does not have the participation of every law enforcement agency in the nation, which prevents the FBI from collecting all relevant information. It’s also voluntary, so even participating agencies are free to withhold incident reports, keeping their own official use-of-force/killing numbers lower than what they actually may be.
The problem with underreporting traces back decades, though. The official count of police killings has always been lower than data compiled by non-government databases, which rely almost solely on open-source information like news reports. It would seem the numbers reported by the FBI would be higher, since it theoretically has access to more info, but the FBI’s count has repeatedly been lower than outside reporting.
A recent study published by The Lancet says the official numbers are wrong. And they’re off by a lot. Utilizing outside databases compiled by private citizens/entities and data obtained from the USA National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), the researchers have reached the conclusion that law enforcement self-reporting has resulted in undercounting the number of killings by officers by thousands over the past four decades.
We found that more than half of all deaths due to police violence that we estimated in the USA from 1980 to 2018 were unreported in the NVSS. Compounding this, we found substantial differences in the age-standardised mortality rate due to police violence over time and by racial and ethnic groups within the USA.
According to this study [PDF], the NVSS did not report 55% of deaths attributable to police violence, resulting in an undercount of ~17,000 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers. There are a lot of contributing factors, not the least of which is law enforcement’s hesitancy to report or provide data on their own possible wrongdoing.
But there are other contributors. Misclassification of deaths often starts in the coroner’s office. Some coroners and forensic examiners work hand-in-hand with local law enforcement, resulting in pressure to define cause of death as something unrelated to force applied by officers. One way to fix this ongoing contributor to underreporting is to protect coroners and examiners from other government agencies.
Coroners and forensic medical experts also propose that to avoid incorrect assignment of cause of death due to pressure from the police, politicians, or the deceased family members, forensic pathologists should work independently from law enforcement. Additionally, forensic pathologists often must investigate and testify in cases of police violence. To ensure that pathologists are free from pressures that could influence these cases, pathologists should be awarded whistleblower protections under the law.
The study also notes there is one proven way to reduce killings by police officers. It involves changing policies and laws.
Evidence suggests that there have been some successful reforms to reduce police violence from 1970 to 1985; 50 cities with populations larger than 250 000 residents halved their fatal police violence from 353 to 172 per year, primarily through banning shooting of non-violent fleeing suspects.
The things that don’t work are the surface-level reform efforts cops actually agree to.
However, more recent reform efforts to prevent police violence in the USA, including body cameras, implicit bias training, de-escalation, and diversifying police forces, have all failed to further meaningfully reduce police violence rates.
To meaningfully reduce incidents of police violence, you first have to confront the problem. Bad data that downplays the number of violent acts committed by police officers allows agencies to pretend the problem isn’t as bad as critics say it is. It also allows them to minimize their contribution to these deaths by relying on cause of death reports that skew towards law enforcement’s narrative, rather than independent conclusions by medical experts. Bogus stats are a luxury we can’t afford in this nation, not if we ever hope to return America to a place where the police serve the public, rather than behaving like warlords overseeing a never ending conflict.