Study Finds U.S. Government Misclassified Over 17,000 Police Killings Since 1980


By Jacqueline Nguyen

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Researchers from a peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, published a study on Oct. 2, finding that of the 30,800 people who died as a result of police violence in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018, 17,100 of them were misclassified or unreported in official U.S. government reports.

According to the U.S. National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), this comes out to 55.5% of police killings being misclassified. 

Dr. Chris Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, one of the study’s authors, shares that “For most causes of death, the death certificate filled out by a physician is sort of the gold standard” on keeping track of how many deaths there are. This is problematic, however, given the existence of districts where there is a systematic under-recording of police-related deaths.

Following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in Missouri, news organizations began tallying police-related deaths themselves and found that their numbers were much higher than the government’s. 

These efforts of analyzing police-related deaths occurred as the result of evidence that police killings were being under-reported, and perpetuating a false-narrative of the prevalence of police violence. 

The study compared data from the NVVS with three non-governmental, open-source databases. Using these three, Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence, and The Counted, along with the NVSS, the researchers extracted age, sex, U.S. state of death registration, year of death, race, and ethnicity to quantify the rate of under-reporting by the NVSS, coming out to a remarkable 55.5%.

However, Dr. Murray voices that the study does not provide enough information to realize the disproportionate impact of police killings. It does not take into account the races or ethnicities, nor “basic difference[s] in where people live, what sort of disadvantage[s] they have, versus the actual specific actions of the police.”

The study showed that between those 38 years, the top state with the highest under-reporting rates was Oklahoma with an estimated 83.7% of death’s misclassified. This was followed closely behind by Wyoming with 79.1%, Alabama with 76.9%, Louisiana with 75.7%, and Nebraska with 72.9%. 

Dr. Murray told The New York Times that “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.” So, the question that now stands is why are coroners and medical examiners failing to show police involvement on death certificates?

As Equal Initiative Justice points out, many medical examiners and coroners work for or are embedded within a police department, which may result in powerful conflicts of interest. 

Similarly, in a 2011 survey led by the National Association of Medical Examiners, 22% of its members that responded shared that they had been pressured by an elected official or appointee to change the cause or manner of death on a death certificate.

Conversely, there are some reservations about the validity of studies which analyze data using open or crowd-source investigation. According to Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska, these data analytics are also vulnerable to inaccurate findings and may include data that ought not to be considered. This raises additional concerns about defining the criteria and understanding nuances in classifying causes of death, and practical concerns about how to best measure the frequency of police-caused fatalities. 

Highlighting the importance of misclassified police killings, Lancet’s study urged that “to respond to this public health crisis, the USA must replace militarized policing with evidenced-based support for communities, prioritize the safety of the public, and value Black lives.” 


About The Author

Jacqueline Nguyen is a writer for The Vanguard at Berkeley's prison reform desk. She is a second-year cognitive student at UC Berkeley and is originally from Huntington Beach, CA.

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