Harvard Medical Scientists Say Police Killings Should Be Counted as Public Health Epidemic


Researchers at Harvard have released an intriguing new study concerning an issue that you usually might not expect scientists to speak about.

The summary of points is as follows:

  • During the past year, the United States has experienced major controversies—and civil unrest—regarding the endemic problem of police violence and police deaths.
  • Although deaths of police officers are well documented, no reliable official US data exist on the number of persons killed by the police, in part because of long-standing and well-documented resistance of police departments to making these data public.
  • These deaths, however, are countable, as evidenced by “The Counted,” a website launched on June 1, 2015, by the newspaper The Guardian, published in the United Kingdom, which quickly revealed that by June 9, 2015, over 500 people in the US had been killed by the police since January 1, 2015, twice what would be expected based on estimates from the US Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI).

  • Law-enforcement–related deaths, of both persons killed by law enforcement agents and also law enforcement agents killed in the line of duty, are a public health concern, not solely a criminal justice concern, since these events involve mortality and affect the well-being of the families and communities of the deceased; therefore, law-enforcement–related deaths are public health data, not solely criminal justice data.
  • We propose that law-enforcement–related deaths be treated as a notifiable condition, which would allow public health departments to report these data in real-time, at the local as well as national level, thereby providing data needed to understand and prevent the problem.

Rather than subjecting it to any bias, we reproduce the word-for-word study itself below:

Krieger N, Chen JT, Waterman PD, Kiang MV, Feldman J (2015) | Police Killings and Police Deaths Are Public Health Data and Can Be Counted. PLoS Med 12(12): e1001915. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001915

An Official Mystery: The United States Tally of Deaths Due to Police Violence (Yet Counted by a United Kingdom Newspaper)

During the past year, the United States has experienced major social controversies—and civil unrest—regarding police violence and police deaths [1,2]. 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 [1,3].

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)[2], no reliable official data exist on the number of US persons killed by the police [1]. 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 open-sourced reporting projects” as well as submissions from users [1] (see S1 Table for additional, albeit less comprehensive and less timely, sources). 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”) [1]. 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)[1]. 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 [1]. The website reports it will continue documenting data through the end of 2015; it is unknown if it will continue after this date [1].

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 [4]. As of September 19, 2015, the cumulative 2015 total of 842 US persons killed by the police [1] 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) [4]. 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 [1,3,58]. 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 [5].

A Public Health Solution: Make Law-Enforcement–Related Deaths a Notifiable Condition

Because reliable real-time data on law-enforcement–related deaths are critical for the public’s well-being, and because efforts over the past century to obtain data from law enforcement agencies on the number of deaths caused by police have been unsuccessful [3,8], we propose an alternative and already available policy route: make all law-enforcement–related deaths reportable conditions.

A core premise of our proposal is that mortality and morbidity due to police violence is a matter of public health, not just criminal justice [57,9,10], as is the occupational health of law-enforcement officials [2]. At issue are not only the direct harms to individuals but the toll taken on family members and communities, both for persons killed by the police and for police killed in the line of duty [13,510]. The role of public health is to document the deaths that have occurred; it is a separate matter, in the realm of the legal system, to determine the circumstances under which the deaths have occurred (e.g., whether use of force was justifiable or not) [3,8]. However, in addition to the harms experienced directly by individuals due to law-enforcement–related violence, there is another important casualty: the public health harms that arise from the damage rendered to the body politic itself [1,3,8]. Police are one of the most visible “faces” of government, whose work daily puts them in view of the public they are sworn to protect [3,8]. Combine excess police violence with inadequate prosecution of such violence, and the ties that bind citizens and their democratically elected governments become deeply frayed, with vicious cycles of distrust and violence fueling dysfunctional policing and dysfunctional governance more generally [13,58]. The direct effects and spill-over effects matter for public health and medicine alike, as reflected in the impact on emergency medical services, trauma units, mental health, and the trust required to deliver and implement any government-sponsored program, public health or otherwise [13,58].

FFurther attesting to public health possibility of—and need for—timely and routine data on police killings are the data in Fig 1, which builds on our prior analyses of long-term trends in US deaths due to legal intervention (1960–2010) among black and white men, ages 15 to 34 [9]. The graphs show the rates (1960–2011, using 5-year moving averages) for eight cities, which we selected by searching The Guardian website [1] and picking the top five cities (as of June 12, 2015, shortly after the website was launched) for number of persons killed in 2015 by the police (Los Angeles, CA; Houston, TX; New York, NY; Phoenix, AZ; San Francisco, CA) plus the top three cities most mentioned in 2015 (in addition to these five cities) for protests against police violence (Ferguson, MO; Baltimore, MD; Cleveland, OH).
Continue reading the full article.

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  • Carolyn Zaremba

    FBI stands for Federal Bureau of Investigtion (NOT intelligence).