[News] 30 000 people killed by police between 1980 and 2018. Government stats omitted approximately 17,100 deaths, 55% under-reported

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 1 17:09:55 EDT 2021

  Fatal police violence in the USA: a public health issue

Published:October 02, 

Preventable violent deaths of people of colour at the hands of police in 
the USA have been overlooked as a public health issue. Many victims of 
police violence have become household names, like George Floyd, whose 
death made headlines worldwide and raised awareness of the Black Lives 
Matter movement, which targets structural racism and violence against 
Black people in the USA and abroad. Yet, for every George Floyd, 
hundreds of other Americans' deaths after violent exchanges with police 
go unheeded, unacknowledged, and uncounted.

Although the US federal government has tracked deaths from law 
enforcement since 1949 using the National Vital Statistics System 
(NVSS), questions around undercounting of police violence fatalities and 
the underlying quality of death certificate data have arisen only in 
recent years. Journalists have not only documented narratives of police 
brutality but also identified disparities in the total number of deaths 
reported in the NVSS, especially when non-firearm injuries were involved 
or when information about the individual's race or ethnicity was missing 
or misclassified. Open-source databases composed of news coverage and 
public records of police violence fatalities maintained by journalists 
and independent research teams, including Fatal Encounters, Mapping 
Police Violence, and The Counted, have provided rich alternatives to 
NVSS data, but are limited by short periods of coverage and differences 
in case definitions.

• View related content for this article 

A lack of accurate data has arguably been one of the major impediments 
to adopting a public health approach to deaths caused by police 
violence. Today in /The Lancet/, a group led by researchers at the 
Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) publish the most 
accurate and comprehensive assessment of deaths attributable to police 
violence in the USA to date. The study is a potential turning point for 
improving national estimates of fatalities from police violence by 
incorporating non-governmental open-source data to correct NVSS data. 
The findings are staggering: around 30 000 people died from police 
violence between 1980 and 2018. The NVSS omitted approximately 17 100 
deaths, leading to an under-reporting of deaths attributable to police 
violence by more than 55%. Age-standardised mortality was higher in 
Black people (0·69 of 100 000) and non-Hispanic Black people (0·35 of 
100 000) than White people (0·20 of 100 000).

These figures show a system of violent and fatal policing in the USA 
that is unfairly and unevenly applied across race and ethnicity. Arguing 
that police brutality exists because of a context of structural racism 
is not new, but there is novelty and power in leveraging the IHME 
methodology for reform. Ensuring the veracity of data collection 
requires moving it out of the remit of law enforcement, which has been 
self-interested, voluntary, and incomplete. Data collection across 
states, especially those where reporting is low and misclassification is 
high, should be supported through public health infrastructure, funding 
for collaborations between journalists and researchers, and the 
mandating of consistent standards to ensure that death certificates are 
completed by medical examiners or physicians with appropriate forensic 
training. Accuracy is crucial, but how cause of death is reported is 
itself an issue of complicity in racist policing, as underscored in a 
recent Correspondence on the designation of sickle cell trait as a cause 
of in-custody death: “Physicians deny justice to communities by 
providing medical cover for death at the hands of law enforcement 
officers and by perpetuating medical falsehoods to justify this practice.”

Better data are one aspect of a public health approach; introducing 
harm-reduction policies is another. Policing in the USA follows models 
of hostile, racialised interactions between civilians and armed agents 
of the state. Marginalised groups are more likely to be criminalised 
through the war on drugs or homelessness. Reducing hostile or violent 
interactions between police and civilians, particularly those who are 
most vulnerable overall, is a forceful case for investment in other 
areas of community-based health and support systems, including housing, 
food access, substance use treatment, and emergency medical services. 
Strategies to lower fatalities from police violence must include 
demilitarisation of police forces, but with the broader call to 
demilitarise society by, for example, restricting access to firearms. 
Drawing on the experience of the public health community in countries 
with unarmed police forces, such as Norway and the UK, could also 
improve policy. Police forces too must take greater responsibility for 
police-involved injuries and deaths. Such changes are long overdue. As 
the Article in this week's issue so starkly shows, the status quo has 
been hugely harmful to the health and wellbeing of people in the USA.
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