Eve Wool: In IHME’s recent paper on fatal police violence by race, ethnicity, and state in the United States, we found that there were more than 30,000 deaths by police violence between 1980 and 2018. Of these deaths, 55% went unreported by the National Vital Statistics System, which is the vital registration system for the US and the primary data collection agency for deaths in the US. The causes of underreporting vary. Several are that medical examiners and coroners are often embedded within police departments, leading to conflicts of interest as they’re expected to report on the violence of the departments they may be embedded within. Additionally, there is a lack of training and standardization for doctors and medical examiners on how to fill in death certificates. This leads to misclassification of police violence as homicide or suicide most commonly.
Despite this underreporting, there are several open-source databases that we have found to be more accurate and complete than NVSS, that should be used to drive policy and change. These include Mapping Police Violence, Fatal Encounters, and The Counted. Really, undercounting is just obscuring the real issue – police violence, which like all violence, is a public health concern and is preventable.
In IHME’s recent paper on fatal police violence by race, ethnicity, and state in the United States, we found that Black Americans were 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White Americans. Indigenous and Hispanic Americans were almost twice as likely to be killed by the police than White Americans. Police violence against Black people was higher every year from 1980 to 2018 than it was for White people in the United States. Since 1980, this racial disparity has remained largely unchanged. All of these statistics really outline the systemic racism that is driving police violence in the US. Police violence is a public health issue. Violence is a public health issue. And systemic racism is a public health issue.
Mohsen Naghavi: Police violence is one of the causes that we are responsible for publishing estimations for every year in our Global Burden of Disease Study – same for lung cancer and homicide. We’ve published this for many years since GBD 2010. In the process of making these calculations, we’ve come to this understanding that over the years, our estimation of deaths due to police violence was not correct. We came to the understanding that there is a big misclassification in NVSS data in the US and also in other countries. We find that not only is this misclassified and underreported, it has unequal distribution in age, sex, and race.
This is our job to produce the number of deaths and calculate the burden of disease and injury for different causes every year. We’ve come up to this item of police violence, and noticed we have inconsistency between the data and what has happened in reality. Police violence is high in the United States – this is outside of the paper, but if we compare the level of police violence in the US to other high-income countries, it is about five times higher than any other country. We are in the process of finalizing a paper we want to publish about global violence over 40 years. It includes police violence, conflict and terrorism, and more, from 1980 to 2019.
Alexes Harris: Police use of force or police killings is a key social problem in the United States today. It always has been, since the inception of the criminal legal system, but has brought a lot of attention recently with the killing of Mike Brown in 2014, and the very public and traumatic killing of George Floyd in 2020. A lot of national attention has turned to this issue of police use of force. A big problem, though, is that we don’t have accurate statistics to really measure the extent of this problem. This paper really highlights the underreporting – 55% of the police killings in this country have been underreported. The analysis finds that African Americans in this country are killed at a rate 3.5 times higher than White people by police. The data really highlight that we have a serious problem, and the authors frame it in a public health approach. So many different groups, from policymakers to advocates to commissions, have been calling for an approach to really decrease the use of force, but many folks have been really hiding behind the lack of numbers, and the lack of numbers highlighting the racial disparities in this country. This report now calls us to the carpet and asks us what are we going to do to address this violence?
Data analysis really helps us see the landscape of police killings and the disparities across racial and ethnic groups in this country. It really asks the question and puts it on the table to say to policymakers and law enforcement agencies, what are we going to do to address this problem? We can no longer hide behind the fact that we don’t have these numbers. We have accurate, heartbreaking numbers. It was hard to read this report. My stomach turned to look at the disparities and the numbers of people killed by the police in this country. So now, we’re really calling the question, and saying, “policymakers, how can we address this issue?”
I think that for communities of color, the first reaction might be disgust or hurt seeing the numbers and the disparities by which African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx populations are disproportionately killed by the police in this country. But I think communities will also use these data to argue for more attention, more resources, more restructuring and dismantling of the violence used in police forces, and the build-up of community support systems to make sure that there isn’t a person attending an event with a gun on their hip – recognizing that it might lead to more violence.
Edwin Lindo: My hope is that this report will move us closer to a place of transparency where there no longer has to be a systematic review or a report of this nature that comes out, having spent hundreds of hours of research and time, but it is actually transparent to all of the people in this country. Transparency inevitably leads to better and more robust accountability.
We deserve transparency in the way the coding works and even the way we code and report fatal police violence and interactions. What I would argue, and we see the data very clearly, that there is an arc that is increasing from the moment in time that 1033 – which is a federal program that has allowed federal, military-grade weapons to fall in the hands of officers in police departments – when you have law enforcement carry AR-15s, bomb-resistant gear, and have tanks that were meant to withstand missiles, that doesn’t make sense when you’re talking about creating community safety.
It is now scientifically documented that you have Black folks who are dying at rates per 100,000 folks that are higher than the likelihood of any person in this country dying in an accident while on their bicycle, or a higher rate of dying than someone contracting measles and dying of that – and the fact that we’ve spent money, investment, and time to make sure that those mortalities from bicycling and measles decrease substantially.
I then ask the question, how are we not interrogating the deaths that have been declared a public health crisis? Focusing and saying, “We can’t allow this.” If you look at these datasets, they have found that young Black men have a likelihood of 1 in 1,000 of dying at the hands of police. That is terrifying. We have a responsibility, we have an onus to ensure just like any pathology or any other disease in this country that we do not allow people to die from the systems that we’re supposed to be investing in to protect us.