An official mystery: US data on police-related deaths (yet counted by the Guardian)


A new paper from Harvard-based researchers shows that police-related deaths are countable, and explains the public health imperatives behind collecting this kind of data.

During the past year, the United States has experienced major social controversies—and civil unrest—regarding police violence and police deaths. Turning anger to action, the growing social movement #Blacklivesmatter has focused public attention on the long history and current realities of police brutality, both lethal and non-lethal, directed against the US black population. 

Yet, although the number of US law enforcement agents killed in the line of duty is well documented (for 2015, 26 killed by shootings as of mid-September, of whom 17 were police officers), no reliable official data exist on the number of US persons killed by the police. On June 1, 2015, however, The Guardian-a newspaper from the United Kingdom—launched the “The Counted,” the first website that seeks to report, in real-time, the number of US people killed by police, and does so via “monitoring regional news outlets, research groups, and opensourced reporting projects” as well as submissions from users. The Counted’s open data, extending back to January 1, 2015, include: (a) the decedent’s geographic location, gender, race/ethnicity, age, and photograph; (b) if the decedent was armed (if yes, with what kind of weapon); and (c) cause of death (“gunshot,” “taser,” “struck by vehicle,” “death in custody,” and “unknown”). Its data indicate that, as of October 6, 2015, 886 people in the US have been killed by the police since the year’s start (217 black, of whom 64, or 30%, were unarmed). Moreover, one week after its launch, it reported, on June 9, 2015, that the cumulative number of persons killed by police in the US had surpassed 500, twice what would be expected based on estimates of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. 


Image: A screenshot from the Guardian's 'The Counted' project.

It is startling that we, in the US, must rely on a UK newspaper for systematic timely counts of the number of persons killed by the police. After all, we have a world-class public health system that reports, nationally, in real-time, on numerous notifiable diseases and also on deaths occurring in 122 cities with populations >100,000. As of September 19, 2015, the cumulative 2015 total of 842 US persons killed by the police notably exceeded the corresponding totals reported for the 122 cities’ 442 deaths under age 25 (all causes) and also 585 deaths (all ages) due to pneumonia and influenza, and likewise exceeded the national totals for several diseases of considerable concern: measles (188 cases), malaria (786 cases), and mumps (436 cases), and was on par with the national number of cases of Hepatitis A (890 cases). Just as epidemic outbreaks can threaten the public’s health, so too can police violence and impunity imperil communities’ social and economic well-being, especially if civil unrest ensues. For example, in Baltimore, in late April 2015, in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year old African American man who was fatally injured while in the custody of the police, the resulting civil unrest, which occurred prior to charges being brought against the six police officers involved, led to immediate and long-term public health harms, including medication crises linked to the destruction of a dozen pharmacies, opioids from these pharmacies entering the illicit drug street market, mental health trauma, and further damage to the economies of neighborhoods already burdened by high rates of unemployment and premature mortality.

Counting for accountability: The power of public health data to make lives matter

Three problems limit reliance on the publicly available US national mortality data: (1) they likely provide a conservative estimate (due to underreporting of police killings); (2) They are not available on a real-time basis; and (3) they are aggregated to the county level. Nor are these gaps filled by the US National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), which presently includes only 32 states, and whose public access data are available only up through 2012 and only at the state level. 

Hence our public health proposal to treat all law-enforcement–related deaths as a reportable health condition. No act of Congress is needed. No police department need be involved. Public health agencies can do the job. Public health experts, working with the US Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (which issues recommendations for notifiable conditions) and with public input, can together create uniform case definitions and surveillance protocols to compile, in one uniform system, both: (a) deaths caused by law-enforcement officials (whether in the public or private sector, e.g., both local police officers and private security guards) and (b) occupational fatalities of law-enforcement officials. In our state of Massachusetts, for example, reportable conditions are governed by state regulations, they are allowed to include: “injuries or causes of injuries” pertaining to “assaults or homicides,” “strikes by/against another object or person,” “traumatic brain injuries,” and “weapons”, and triggers for investigating reportable conditions can include not only health records but also media reports, such as The Counted. Although not yet used in Massachusetts to report lawenforcement–related deaths, the enabling regulations exist. 

Hence our proposal that law-enforcement–related deaths be a notifiable condition, reported in real time by medical and public health professionals. The harms to individuals and to the public’s health merit this monitoring. To our knowledge, this proposed course of action has not previously been suggested. The resulting data could inform advocacy within and across US states to reduce law-enforcement–related mortality and also set precedent for the more complex and costly task of monitoring law-enforcement–related injuries. 

Underscoring the need for this public health approach is the new statement, on October 5, 2015, by the recently appointed US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will begin piloting, in 2016, an open-source system akin to that used by The Counted to count the number of “officer-related deaths,” which would then “move towards verifying facts about the incident by surveying local police departments, medical examiner’s offices, and investigative offices”. Timely public health data on all law-enforcement– related deaths, per that provided by the system of reportable notifiable conditions, will be all the more important for providing a credible source of data and verification, should the proposed DOJ pilot be successful and also sustainable past the upcoming presidential elections in November 2016. 

It is stunning that we in the US must turn to a UK newspaper website for timely and detailed reporting on deaths due to police violence. It also is unnecessary. A policy mechanism already exists. It is time that public health agencies exercise their ability to report to the public, in a timely manner, vital data on law-enforcement–related mortality that are critical to the well-being of communities and the body politic itself.

Read the full research paper here.

Visit 'The Counted'.