Killings at the hands of the police in the US disproportionately impact people of certain races and ethnicities, pointing to systemic racism in policing, according to a new study.
The exhaustive study published in Lancet, a British medical journal, lays bare the extent of under-reporting of police violence in the US, and presents revised estimates of deaths due to police violence.
It raises important questions about racial bias among medical examiners and highlights the lack of credible national record on what it terms an “urgent public health crisis” in the US.
The research, published on Thursday, is conducted by researchers at the University of Washington.
The first-of-its-kind study compares information from a federal database known as the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), which collects death certificates, with recent data from three organizations that track police killings through news reports and public records requests.
On analyzing data over the past four decades, the researchers see a startling discrepancy: About 55 percent of fatal encounters with the police between 1980 and 2018 were listed as another cause of death.
“Our analysis of police violence in the USA shows that the NVSS misclassified and subsequently under-reported 55.5% (95% UI 54.8–56.2) of our estimated deaths from police violence between 1980 and 2018,” the study reveals.
The highest under-reporting in the NVSS, it states, occurred for deaths of Black Americans at 59.5% (58.3–60.7). However, it adds, the issue of under-reporting does not only affect Black Americans.
Researchers estimated that over the period they studied, nearly 31,000 Americans were killed by the police, with more than 17,000 of them going unaccounted for in the official statistics.
“The police have disproportionately killed Black people at a rate of 3.5 times higher than White people, and have killed Hispanic and Indigenous people disproportionately as well. The rate of fatal police violence was higher in every year for Black Americans than for White Americans,” reads the study, which comes in the wake of a series of high-profile police killings in the US.
The report says under-reporting of police killings “obfuscates and minimizes the larger public health issue” that affects people of color the most.
It states that police are more likely to shoot Black civilians than White civilians given the same levels of criminal activity, even when the civilian is unarmed, while adding that systemic racism also makes non-Hispanic Black people more likely to be incarcerated than other racial groups.
“I think 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,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which conducted the study, was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
“You have to look for why those deaths that are being picked up by the open-source investigations, looking in the media and elsewhere, aren’t showing up in the official statistics. That does point to the system of medical examiners and the incentives that may exist for them to want to not classify a death as related to police violence,” he added.
The study asserts that racial bias in policing does not exist in a vacuum, and follows the pattern of anti-Black racism in the criminal justice system throughout the US history.
“Police forces should exist to enforce laws that protect public safety, but throughout the USA's history, police have been used to enforce racist and exploitative social orders that endanger the safety of the most marginalised groups in society,” it states.
The annual number of deaths in police custody has generally gone upward since 1980, even as crime — notwithstanding a rise in homicides last year amid the dislocations of the coronavirus pandemic — has declined from its peak in the early 1990s, said the NYT report.
The states with the highest rates of police killings were Oklahoma, Arizona and Alaska, as well as the District of Columbia, while the states with the lowest rates were Massachusetts, Connecticut and Minnesota, according to the study.
“Accountability and transparency in policing are lacking, as evidenced by ongoing problems with under-reporting. Police officers who kill civilians are rarely charged with a crime,” the report reads.
“Police violence and racism in policing in the USA are not new or unexplained problems; they are the current manifestations of a system that was built to uphold racial hierarchy for most of the USA's history.”