Government Data Undercounts Police Killings by More Than Half, Study Finds


A peer-reviewed study published last week in The Lancet found that 30,800 people died from police violence in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018—and 17,100 of them (more than 55%) were misclassified or unreported in official vital statistics reports.

Researchers also found that Black Americans were 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. Nearly 60% of these deaths were not attributed to police violence in government data. That’s the highest level of underreporting for any group.

Hispanic people of any race and non-Hispanic Indigenous people were about 1.8 times more likely to die from police violence than white people, the researchers found.

Inaccurate data minimizes the problem of police violence, Fablina Sharara, one of the lead authors, told USA TODAY.

“Recent high-profile police killings of Black people have drawn worldwide attention to this urgent public health crisis, but the magnitude of this problem can’t be fully understood without reliable data,” she said in a press release. “Inaccurately reporting or misclassifying these deaths further obscures the larger issue of systemic racism that is embedded in many U.S. institutions, including law enforcement.”

Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington compared data from the U.S. National Vital Statistics System to three non-governmental, open-source databases on police violence: Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence, and The Counted. The federal government has used NVSS to track deaths from law enforcement since 1949.

“These figures show a system of violent and fatal policing in the USA that is unfairly and unevenly applied across race and ethnicity,” The Lancet’s editorial board wrote. The medical journal identified the study as the most accurate and comprehensive assessment of police killings in America to date.

Previous research has found similar rates of underreporting and racial disparities, but this study stands out for the lengthy time period it examined—nearly four decades.

Over that period, researchers found the overall mortality rate due to police violence increased by more than 38%, even though crime has declined since the early 1990s. In 2019, more men died in the U.S. from police violence than from Hodgkin lymphoma or testicular cancer.

One of the starkest findings was that racial disparities in police shootings have actually widened since 2000, IHME director Dr. Christopher Murray told The New York Times.

Under-reporting varied widely across states, the researchers found. From 1980 to 2018, the top five states with the highest under-reporting rates were Oklahoma, with an estimated 83.7% of deaths misclassified; Wyoming, with 79.1%; Alabama, with 76.9%; Louisiana, with 75.7%; and Nebraska, with 72.9%.

The states with the highest mortality rate from police violence were Oklahoma, Washington, D.C., Arizona, Alaska, Nevada, and Wyoming.

“I think the big takeaway is that most people in public health tend to take vital statistics for the U.S. and other countries as the absolute truth, and it turns out, as we show, the vital statistics are missing more than half of the police violence deaths,” Dr. Murray told the Times.

“You have to look for why those deaths that are being picked up by the open-source investigations, looking in the media and elsewhere, aren’t showing up in the official statistics. That does point to the system of medical examiners and the incentives that may exist for them to want to not classify a death as related to police violence.”

The researchers found that some deaths were misclassified because coroners and medical examiners failed to indicate police involvement on the death certificate or assigned the wrong codes in the national database.

But the study also pointed to “substantial conflicts of interest” that could discourage medical examiners and coroners from indicating police involvement, including the fact that many of them work for or are embedded within police departments.

In a 2011 survey of National Association of Medical Examiners members cited in the study, 22% of respondents reported that they had been pressured by an elected official or appointee to change the cause or manner of death on a death certificate.

Police violence and racism in policing in the USA are not new or unexplained problems; they are the current manifestations of a system that was built to uphold racial hierarchy for most of the USA's history.

Study authors

Fatal police violence that disproportionately impacts people of color is an urgent public health crisis with deep roots in our country’s history of racial injustice, the researchers found.

Throughout U.S. history, they write, “police have been used to enforce racist and exploitative social orders that endanger the safety of the most marginalised groups in society”—from capturing runaway slaves and beating civil rights protestors to the heavily militarized policing that disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic people today.

To address this public health crisis, we need to reform how we document and respond to police violence, the researchers conclude. Accurate data collection without conflicting interests is critical to document the full burden of deaths due to police violence. The study includes recommendations for how to improve reporting, and it urges the field of public health to eliminate police violence.

Police killings are not essential to policing or public safety. No one died in 2019 from police violence in Norway, and only three died between 2018 and 2019 in England and Wales—all countries where most police officers are not armed, the researchers note.

“To respond to this public health crisis,” the study concludes, “the USA must replace militarised policing with evidenced-based support for communities, prioritize the safety of the public, and value Black lives.”