Underreported: Law-enforcement-related deaths in America

Clinical Brief – October, 11th

The Brief

Yesterday, a study published in PLoS Medicine reported that a federal US government database designed to track law-enforcement-related deaths may be missing more than half of all deaths involving law enforcement.

In contrast, a nongovernmental database that scans media reports was found to have documented over 90% of deaths involving law enforcement.

Other worrying trends identified by the study’s researchers included underreporting when law-enforcement-related deaths are not caused by gunfire and underreporting in low-income counties.


How does the government track law-enforcement-related deaths?

The federal government administers the National Vital Statistics System or NVSS. It tracks the cause of death on death certificates. According to researchers, the NVSS has been tracking law-enforcement-related deaths since 1949.

Every cause of death gets a code, and there is such as code called death by “legal intervention”. It covers injuries inflicted by the police or other law-enforcing agents, including military on duty. The injuries could happen during an arrest or attempted arrest, suppression of disturbances, maintaining order, and other legal actions.

If the coroner or medical examiner doesn’t mention any police involvement in the proper field on their report, the deaths could be misclassified under a different code and may be missed by the NVSS.


What’s this nongovernmental database?

The Guardian runs The Counted. This database scans media reports of “any death arising directly from encounters with law enforcement”.

As the researchers say, all deaths in the 2015-16 dataset were substantiated based on local news media reports with the exception of five deaths identified by The Guardian’s original reporting.

Other similar databases mentioned in the study include The Washington Post’s police shooting database, and Fata Encounters.


How did the NVSS fare against The Counted?

Poorly. In a statistical model, the researchers estimated that a total of about 1,200 deaths involving US law enforcement happened in 2015.

The Counted picked up 93% of deaths involving law enforcement, while the NVSS only managed to get 45%.

Taking a closer look at the data, researchers found that the chances of the death being missed by the NVSS depended on how and where the deaths occurred.

It seems that gunshot wounds are harder to misclassify on death certificates than non-firearm causes of deaths. The chances of a misclassification for a gun-related death was about 49% vs 86% for a non-firearm related death.

It’s also interesting that deaths in the highest-income quintile counties had just a 33% chance of being misclassified vs 57%, nearly double, for the lowest-income-quintile counties.


Bottom line

So, why does this matter? Accurate reporting is the first step towards transparency, which is crucial for accountability.

The researchers claim that this was the first study to compare two independent sources that track law-enforcement-related deaths. Here, we see an example of journalism playing an important role in helping to ensure accountability when it comes to the use of force by law enforcement.

“Improving public health monitoring of law-enforcement-related mortality is a critical part of efforts to ensure public accountability for these incidents and prevent future incidents.”

– Feldman JM, et al.


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