Most deaths from police violence in United States over the past four decades have been mislabelled or undercounted in the federal government main database, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington and published in The Lancet.
The US National Vital Statistics System recorded police violence as playing a role in 13,700 deaths from 1980 to 2018, the study’s authors said. But by examining three non-governmental, open-source databases, they estimated the true total was more than 30,800, or 55.5 percent of those killed by police.
The study noted that the undercounting was highest for non-Hispanic Black Americans, at 59.5 percent; followed by 56.1 percent for non-Hispanic white people and; 50 percent for Hispanic people – raising questions about how race affects medical examiners and coroners record deaths.
It also found that Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.
“Underreporting obfuscates and minimises the larger public health issue, high rates of fatal police violence with serious disparities in race and ethnicity,” the authors wrote.
“While the purpose of our model was strictly predictive, and not designed or intended for inferential or causal analysis, it is crucial to consider the causes of police violence to understand this health crisis.”
The study is one of the most comprehensive examinations ever of police violence in the US, and comes after widespread protests broke out across the country in 2020 following the high-profile killings of unarmed Black people by police.
These included the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Advocates and legislators have since pushed for federal-level police reform.
The study found that Oklahoma had the highest rate of misreporting of any state, at 83.7 percent; followed by Wyoming at 79.1 percent; Alabama, at 76.9 percent; Louisiana, at 75.7 percent; and Nebraska at 72.9 percent.
It also noted that some jurisdictions used coroners who were not trained in forensic pathology and had deep ties with law enforcement, which could influence how information regarding the death was logged on death certificates and later reflected in government databases.
Among the recommendations, the authors said better training on how to document police violence on death certificates and for forensic pathologists to work independently from law enforcement could help to address the underreporting.