Police murders in America have been underestimated by more than half over the past four decades, according to new study that raises sharp questions about racial bias among forensic pathologists and highlights lack of reliable national record keeping on what has become a major public health and civil rights issue.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington and published Thursday in The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, is one of the most comprehensive looks at the scale of police violence in America and its disproportionate impact. on blacks.
Researchers compared information from a federal database known as the National Vital Statistics System, which collects death certificates, with recent data from three organizations that track police murders through news reports and reports. public record requests. When extrapolating and modeling this data over decades, they identified a surprising discrepancy: around 55% of fatal encounters with police between 1980 and 2018 were listed as another cause of death.
The findings reflect both the controversial role of forensic pathologists and coroners in obscuring the true extent of police violence, and the lack of centralized national data on an issue that has caused enormous upheaval. Nonprofits and private journalists have filled the void by tapping into reporting and social media.
âI think the big takeaway is that most people in public health tend to regard vital statistics for the United States and other countries as the absolute truth, and it turns out, as we show, that more than half of police violence is missing from vital statistics. deaths, âsaid Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which conducted the study.
He continued, âYou have to investigate why these deaths that are noted by open source surveys, looking in the media and elsewhere, are not showing up in official statistics. This points to the forensic pathologist system and the incentives that may exist for them not to classify a death as related to police violence. “
The researchers estimated that during the study period, which roughly traces the era of the war on drugs and the rise in mass incarceration, nearly 31,000 Americans were killed by police, including more than 17,000. are missing in official statistics. The study also documented a glaring racial divide: Black Americans were 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. Data on Asian Americans was not included in the study, but Latinos and Native Americans also suffered higher rates of fatal police violence than whites.
The annual number of deaths in custody has generally increased since 1980, although crime – despite an increase in homicides last year amid upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic – has declined from its peak in the early years. 1990.
The states with the highest police murder rates were Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alaska, as well as the District of Columbia, while the states with the lowest rates were Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the United States. Minnesota, according to the study.
Researchers have estimated that around 20 times more men than women have been killed by police in recent decades; more American men died in 2019 in encounters with police than from Hodgkin lymphoma or testicular cancer.
Unexplained or violent deaths in the United States are investigated by coroners or medical examiners, who use autopsies, toxicology tests, and evidence such as body camera images to determine cause and mode of deceased. The death certificate does not specifically ask if police were involved – which may contribute to the undercoverage identified by the study – but many forensic pathologists are trained to include this information.
The system has long been criticized for fostering a warm relationship with law enforcement – forensic scientists regularly consult with detectives and prosecutors, and in some jurisdictions, they are directly employed by law enforcement agencies.
Yet pathologists have also occasionally complained that law enforcement does not provide them with all the relevant information, that they are pressured to change their minds, or that coroners, who are usually elected and are not always required to have a medical degree, can and overrule their findings.
Researchers found that some of the misclassified deaths were due to forensic pathologists not mentioning law enforcement involvement on the death certificate, while others were incorrectly coded into the database. national data.
Although The Lancet study did not mention specific cases, there have been recent examples where initial findings by coroners or medical examiners minimized or omitted the role of the police when a black man was killed. : Ronald Greene’s death in Louisiana, for example, was attributed by the coroner to cardiac arrest and classified as accidental before video came out of him being knocked out, beaten and dragged by state soldiers.
In Aurora, Colorado, Elijah McClain’s mode of death was deemed undetermined after police strangled him and paramedics injected him with ketamine, a strong sedative. Almost two years later, three officers and two paramedics were charged.
Even in the case of George Floyd, whose last dying breaths below a Minneapolis cop’s knee were captured on bystander video, police and the county medical examiner first highlighted drug use and underlying health problems.
The National Association of Forensic Pathologists encourages the classification of deaths caused by law enforcement as homicides, in part to reduce the appearance of cover-up (homicide can still be considered justified). But classification guidelines differ from office to office, and there are no national standards.
Roger Mitchell Jr., a former Washington, DC chief medical examiner and expert in investigating deaths in custody, has long said death certificates should include a checkbox indicating whether a death occurred in custody, including deaths related to the arrest as well as those in prisons and prisons.
Until forensic pathologists are specifically asked to include this information, he said, he wouldn’t jump to conclusions about why they don’t: âIf it’s a training function, a function of bias, a function of organization racism – all the things we can assume – we can identify it once we have a uniform system. “
A federal law passed in 2014 requiring law enforcement to report deaths in custody has yet to produce public data.
The main findings of the paper are similar to the findings of a closer study conducted at Harvard in 2017 that looked at a year – 2015 – and compared official statistics on deaths in the United States with data on police murders compiled by The Guardian.
“This highlights the persistent problem of police underestimating murders in official data sources, one of them being mortality data,” said Justin Feldman, a Harvard researcher who has conducted the 2017 study and was a peer reviewer on the article published Thursday. in The Lancet.
“It’s a permanent problem that we still don’t, after all these years, do a very good job of keeping track of people killed by police,” he added.
The study comes at a time when America is grappling with a high-profile police murder of one black man after another. But, as the study showed, there are tens of thousands of other deaths that remain in the shadows.
Decisions about cause and manner of death strongly influence whether criminal charges are laid or whether families receive a civil settlement. Mr Floyd’s death was classified as a homicide and the death certificate mentioned law enforcement restraint, but the medical examiner was still facing criticism after prosecutors released his preliminary findings that underlying health problems and drug use had contributed.
Former Maryland Chief Medical Examiner Dr David Fowler was also criticized after testifying on behalf of the Minneapolis cop, saying Mr Floyd’s death was caused by several factors and was not homicide.
After an open letter from Dr Mitchell said Dr Fowler’s testimony revealed “obvious bias,” the Maryland Attorney General began a review of the custodial deaths that were dealt with under Dr Fowler’s tenure.
Dr Murray of the University of Washington said one of the most striking findings was that racial disparities in police shootings have increased since 2000.
The trend contrasts, he said, with other health issues, such as heart disease, where the racial gap has narrowed in recent years.
The study, he and other researchers said, underscores the need for a centralized clearinghouse for data on police violence, as well as a more in-depth review by coroners and medical examiners.
“There has been an attempt to limit the reality of what is,” said Edwin G. Lindo, a specialist in critical race theory and professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who examined the study results but was not involved in setting up the whole. “And what I would suggest is that when we don’t have good data, we can’t really make good policy decisions, and I don’t know if it’s an accident if it’s so vastly under- declared.”