U.S. police killed 1,166 people — more than three a day — in 2015, but an official government count missed a majority of the deaths, a new study shows.
The Guardian, a U.K.-based newspaper and media company with U.S. and international editions, counted 93 percent of the U.S. police-related deaths, while the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics counted only 45 percent, the report in PLOS Medicine found.
'If we as a society want to improve policing and have fewer deaths, we need better data about the circumstances of these deaths to improve training, policies and to hold police departments accountable.' - Justin M. Feldman, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
"It is kind of absurd that a British newspaper is able to do a better job counting the number of killings by police than the CDC or the Department of Justice," said lead author Justin M. Feldman, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
"If we as a society want to improve policing and have fewer deaths, we need better data about the circumstances of these deaths to improve training, policies and to hold police departments accountable," he said in a phone interview.
Feldman and his team matched police-related deaths reported in the Guardian's series "The Counted" to those reported in the CDC's National Vital Statistics System (NVSS).
Details omitted from death certificates
The government based its count on diagnosis codes in state death certificates indicating that "legal intervention" was involved in the death and has long been suspected of significant underreporting. The Guardian, which has suspended its count, drew on news stories and crowd-sourced information.
Researchers estimated that the Guardian missed 80 of the estimated 1,166 deaths and the CDC missed a majority of them: 643 police killings.
In most cases, official records appear to have omitted police killings because a medical examiner or coroner failed to mention law-enforcement involvement on the death certificate, Feldman said.
Police killings most likely to be missed were those by means other than firearms, particularly due to Taser shocks, and those outside the highest-income counties, the study found.
Deaths of children and blacks were more likely to be missed than to be reported in the official government count.
Some states were far more successful in capturing deaths at the hands of police than others. In Oklahoma, police killed 30 civilians in 2015, but none of those deaths was included in the federal government count, Feldman said.
Feldman proposed that states be required to report police-related deaths, like they're now required to report some communicable diseases, and that public health agencies employ local news reports, as the Guardian did, to properly classify and count law-enforcement deaths.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting program requires U.S. law-enforcement agencies to report a host of incidents, but it does not require reporting of civilians killed in police interactions, said Cassandra Crifasi, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore.
"There is mounting pressure to increase law-enforcement transparency and accountability. One necessary component to that is having an accurate count of the number of people killed by police," she said by email.
"Understanding the basic epidemiology of a problem is the first step toward identifying potential interventions and monitoring their effects," said Crifasi, who was not involved in the new research.
The study's senior author, Nancy Krieger, a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also called for better government data.
"As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the U.S.," she said in a news release.
"Our results show our country is falling short of accurately monitoring deaths due to law enforcement, and work is needed to remedy this problem," she said.