17,000 Killings by Police Have Gone Uncounted Since 1980

More than half of all police killings since 1980 do not appear in official government data, according to an explosive new study in The Lancet, a top medical journal. The researchers reveal how “systemic misclassification” in the federal database that tracks the causes of death in America has produced, over four decades, an undercount of more than 17,000 deaths at the hands of police. The proportion of undercounted police killings of Black Americans is even more extreme, the research shows, rising to 60 percent.

The Lancet study casts American police, unequivocally, as a threat to public health. The risk of death-by-cop for an American man in 2019, according to the paper, was higher than the risk of death by testicular cancer, appendicitis, or sexually transmitted disease. These dangers weigh disproportionately on the Black community, as the study emphasizes: “The police have disproportionately killed Black people at a rate of 3.5 times higher than white people.”

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The research for The Lancet paper was conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is housed at the University of Washington Medical School, and which catalogs global disease and injury, studying more than 200 leading causes of death. 

In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone, IMHE researchers said they were motivated to resolve “inconsistencies” in public counts of deadly encounters with police. Independent groups like Mapping Police Violence — which rely on open-source data including news reports of police shootings — have long tallied higher numbers of killings by police than those recorded in the federally funded National Vital Statistics System. NVSS includes an exhaustive database of American causes of death, compiled from death certificates filled out by doctors, medical examiners and coroners. It has tracked deaths from law enforcement since 1949.  

“Last year, after the murder of George Floyd, we reviewed our police-violence data, and we found other literature that supported that NVSS was undercounting,” says Eve Wool, a co-lead author of the study. “And we went and sought other sources to correct it.” The IHME researchers selected high-quality open-source datasets on police violence, including Fatal Encounters and The Counted, and compared those studies to the federal record, building a statistical model of killings by police over time. This effort yielded — as The Lancet touts in an accompanying editorial —  “the most accurate and comprehensive assessment of deaths attributable to police violence in the USA to date.”

The results of the study are staggering: Over the last four decades, nearly 31,000 Americans died at the hands of police, while fewer than 14,000 of those killings were properly recorded by the government — meaning the federal data “did not report 55.5 percent of all deaths attributable to police violence.” For police killings of Black Americans, the undercounting was greater still, with “5,670 deaths missing” from official federal statistics, “out of an estimated 9,540 total deaths.”

Despite recent scrutiny of police violence, federal underreporting of killings by police remains acute. In 2018, the most recent year of federal data studied, more than half of police killings were not accounted for, with “642 deaths missing out of 1,240 total estimated deaths.” The Lancet study also reveals that the prevalence of police killings has increased sharply during the timeframe of the study, jumping by more than 38 percent between the 1980s and 2010s, on a per capita basis.

The undercounted killings are not missing; the NVSS keeps a remarkably accurate tally of American deaths. Rather, they are miscategorized in the system. Some under-reporting may be unintentional, the result of poor training or ambiguous instructions. Critically, the study notes, medical examiners filling out death reports are prompted in their documentation to, “Describe how the injury occurred.” If the involvement of law enforcement is not recorded in this text field, the paper says, then the death will not be accurately coded into the system. The multistep process and open-ended question makes capturing a death by police in the federal database “more complicated than [capturing a death by] cirrhosis or lung cancer,” says Mohsen Naghavi, the paper’s senior author.

But the researchers also sound the alarm over “substantial conflicts of interest” that “could disincentivise” accurate recording. Medical examiners often work for their local police departments, and in some rural areas sheriffs serve double duty as coroners. “Currently, the same government responsible for this violence is also responsible for reporting on it,” warns co-lead author Fablina Sharara. 

In a call for reform, the study authors advise that “forensic pathologists should work independently from law enforcement” and be “awarded whistleblower protections under the law,” to liberate them from pressure to downplay police violence.

The Lancet study finds wide state-by-state variation in the accuracy of reported killings by police. The states with the “highest under-reporting rates” are red and predominantly rural: Oklahoma leads the pack with 83.7 percent undercounted, followed by Wyoming (79.1 percent), Alabama (76.9 percent), Louisiana (75.7 percent), and Nebraska (72.9 percent).

Karin Martin is a professor of public policy at the University of Washington who studies the criminal justice system and its racial disparities, and has reviewed the Lancet findings. The paper is groundbreaking, she says, because it reveals that the problem of killings by police is “twice as high” as the government has officially acknowledged. 

Martin emphasizes that communities of color have long been aware of the police threat to public health. But this authoritative study, in one of the world’s top medical journals, demonstrating that cops kill more American men than Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, could “move the needle,” she says. The Lancet, offers a “stamp of approval and research rigor that is required to get these statistics to the places they need to be,” Martin says, “meaning in front of policymakers and in front of voters.”

Yet the Lancet study has been published at a moment when momentum for systemic police reform, which seemed unstoppable in the wake of the Floyd murder, has stalled. As murder rates have spiked during the pandemic, politicians who once promised to overhaul and rethink systems of public safety are showing little courage in curtailing police budgets. On the federal level, bipartisan talks on police reform collapsed ignominiously this month, with no results.

Wool, the study co-author, says the research proves the point of protesters who took to the street: “The results of this paper are not going to be surprising to a lot of folks, to other academics, to activists in the space,” she says. “We do hope they’re affirming to those groups.” She believes the most important takeaway from the study is the degree to which official undercounting has been “masking” the scope of racially disparate police violence, insisting: “It’s always important to underline the systemic racism that’s driving police violence in the United States.” 

The Lancet is a London-based journal, and the study authors took license to close their scientific paper with a withering critique of American law enforcement: “Although it might seem drastic to many in the USA to defund, disarm, or abolish militarised police, there are many places where living without militarised police is already a reality,” the authors write, citing the experience of disarmed police in the U.K. and Norway, which have killed fewer people than you can count on one hand in recent years. “The USA,” the paper exhorts, “must replace militarised policing with evidenced-based support for communities, prioritise the safety of the public, and value Black lives.”

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