The number of people killed by police in 2015 was undercounted by more than half, a new study from Harvard shows.
The law enforcement-related deaths were not documented on subjects’ death certificates — especially in lower-income counties, and when the deaths were the result of using Tasers.
Data collected by the Guardian, however, captured a large majority of the deaths that were not officially counted as law enforcement-related.
The Harvard study, entitled “Quantifying underreporting of law-enforcement-related deaths in United States vital statistics and news-media-based data sources: A capture-recapture analysis,” was funded by the Open Society Foundations and was published Oct. 10 in PLoS Medicine.
“To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances,” said Justin Feldman, doctoral student at Harvard Chan School and the study’s lead author.
Feldman said that official data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) coupled with The Guardian’s data set, compiled from media reports, paints a much more accurate portrait of the number of police killings.
According to the study, there were 1,166 law-enforcement related deaths in 2015, 599 of which were reported in The Guardian only.
The NVSS documented 44.9% of the total number of deaths and The Guardian’s list documented 93.1%.
Misclassification rates for police-related deaths were higher than 60% among several groups, including people under 18, blacks, people killed by Tasers, and people killed in low-income counties.
In most cases, the misclassification occurred because the coroner or medical examiner failed to document police involvement on the death certificate, the study found.
Senior author of the study Nancy Krieger is calling for laws requiring that police report all law-enforcement related deaths to state public health authorities be implemented. She also believes that state officials should include deaths documented in media reports in their official tally.
“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.
“Our results show our country is falling short of accurately monitoring deaths due to law enforcement and work is needed to remedy this problem.”