Between 1980 and 2018, almost 31,000 people were killed by the police in the USA. That’s according to a study published this week in The Lancet, and if you want some context for that figure, it’s more than the populations of around 93 percent of all cities, towns, and villages in the country.
It's a shocking total, and one which compares pretty badly with the rest of the world. But it’s also not what official government records report. That’s because, the study explains, more than half of police killings in the US end up misclassified or straight-up unreported in official vital statistics reports – or to put it another way, more than 17,000 victims of fatal police violence were simply omitted from the data over the past four decades.
“Many victims of police violence have become household names, like George Floyd, whose death made headlines worldwide,” a Lancet editorial accompanying the study comments. “Yet, for every George Floyd, hundreds of other Americans' deaths after violent exchanges with police go unheeded, unacknowledged, and uncounted.”
Deaths from police violence are notoriously difficult to quantify: there’s no federal database tracking them, and the coroners who record cause of death can be under- (or un-) trained and highly partisan. In some cases, they’re not even medical professionals at all.
“One text field [in the death certificate] is particularly crucial: a section that, in case of injury, asks the certifier to "describe how the injury occurred",” the study explains. “If this section does not mention that the decedent was killed by the police, then the death will not be assigned to legal intervention.”
That’s why groups like Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence, and The Counted exist: journalist- and independently-maintained open-source databases that log deaths from police violence. When they compared these statistics to those collected by the US National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), the government system that collates all death certificates in the USA, they found some startling discrepancies. Not only were 55.5 percent of deaths from police violence not accounted for in the NVSS records, but this under-reporting – like the killings themselves – was disproportionately doled out to Black Americans.
“[T]he magnitude of this problem can’t be fully understood without reliable data,” co-lead author Fablina Sharara said in a statement. “Inaccurately reporting or misclassifying these deaths further obscures the larger issue of systemic racism that is embedded in many US institutions, including law enforcement.”
Not only did black Americans experience fatal police violence at a rate 3.5 higher than their white counterparts, but the analysis also found that they had a three-in-five chance of having their true causes of deaths omitted from the records. While this is probably the most comprehensive study to date measuring police violence in the US, the authors note that these results mirror those found by previous, smaller studies.
“Efforts to prevent police violence and address systemic racism in the USA, including body cameras that record interactions of police with civilians along with de-escalation training and implicit bias training for police officers, for example, have largely been ineffective,” explained co-lead author Eve Wool. “As our data show, fatal police violence rates and the large racial disparities in police killings have either remained the same or increased over the years.”
The solution? According to the authors, the first step must be to decouple police-sympathetic organizations from the monitoring and recording of deaths – open-source data, Sharara says, would provide “a more reliable and comprehensive resource to help inform policies that can prevent police violence and save lives.”
But to fix the problem long-term, the authors suggested some major changes are needed in American policing.
“Our recommendation to utilize open-source data collection is only a first step,” Wool said. “As a community we need to do more... Policymakers should look to other countries, such Norway and the UK, where police forces have been de-militarized and use evidence-based strategies to find effective solutions that prioritize public safety and community-based interventions to reduce fatal police violence.”