Researchers at the University of Washington uncovered the reason why more than half of police killings in the US have gone uncounted in the last 40 years: the killings are being mislabeled.
The study, released Thursday (September 30) compared the data compiled by the National Vital Statistics System, a federal database that collects information from death certificates with data from three separate organizations that track police killings across the country.
According to The New York Times, the researchers found that about 55% of fatal police encounters between 1980 and 2018 were listed as a different cause of death.
From the inception of the War on Drugs, to the controversial 1994 Crime Bill that fueled mass incarceration, and beyond, nearly 31,000 Americans were killed by police, the study found. More than 17,000 of those deaths were not reported in official statistics.
Along racial lines, the study showed that Black Americans were 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police as white people.
Police killings were highest in Oklahoma, Arizona, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Minnesota had the lowest rates between this time frame, the study found.
The findings highlight the impact of racial bias among medical examiners and coroners and also underscores the need for a centralized national database on police killings –– a job that several nonprofits, community activists, and journalists have picked up the torch to do.
"I think the big takeaway is that most people in public health tend to take vital statistics for the US 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," Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington that led the study, told The Times.
Researchers found that some of the causes of deaths were mislabeled because medical examiners did not mention that law enforcement was involved in the person's death, while others were not coded correctly in the database.
The police killing of Ronald Greene was labeled as accidental before the release of body camera footage. Elijah McClain's death by police was first labeled as undetermined after he was placed in a chokehold and injected with ketamine. George Floyd's murder was first attributed to drug use by the county examiner.
"It's highlighting the persistent problem of undercounting killings by police in official data sources, one of those being mortality data," Justin Feldman, a Harvard research fellow told The Times. "This is an ongoing issue that we are still, after all these years not doing a very good job of keeping track of people killed by police," he added.
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