On Checking Police Deaths

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 3, 2021

One lesson we learn over and over from the news is to check the data that gives rise to conclusions and emotions.

The New York Times report on a recent study showing official records seriously are undercounting police killings neatly captures that idea.

Researchers at the University of Washington whose work has been published in the British medical journal The Lancet looked at death records to compare them with what is known about deaths at the hands of police. What they found were patterns that more than half of the death records never mention police involvement.

Instead, being medical records, they often list specific causes of death, like asphyxiation, for example, without mentioning that that there had been an issue about choke holds while in police custody.

The study covered 40 years’ worth of records from the National Vital Statistics System, which collects death certificates, and compared them with data from three organizations that track police killings through news reports and public records requests. The comparison showed that 55 percent of fatal encounters with police between 1980 and 2018 were listed as another cause of death.

The conclusions pointed up the need for more reliable national records and raised questions about the degree to which coroners could be protecting police departments. The study also showed patterns of disproportionate deaths of Black men.

Specifics on Death

Of course, a death certificate asks for a cause of death, not a narrative. So, yes, an individual may have died as a specific result of heart failure rather than as the result of the encounter with police, which is not a medical category. Death certificates do not specifically ask whether the police were involved though some medical examiners include that information.

But in aggregate, the study looked at nearly 31,000 Americans were killed by the police, with more than 17,000 of them going unaccounted for in the official statistics. The annual number of deaths in police custody has gone upward since 1980, even as crime generally has declined.

The number of fatal encounters between police and Black citizens has zoomed, in part because of more reporting outside of these death certificates.

The Times reporters found that death reporting has long been criticized for fostering relationships between law enforcement and forensic pathologists who regularly consult with detectives and prosecutors and in some jurisdictions, they are directly employed by police agencies. Some pathologists say that they have been pressured to change their opinions, or that coroners, who are usually elected and are not always required to have a medical degree, can and do overrule their findings.

The Times noted examples of Ronald Greene’s death in Louisiana, attributed by the coroner to cardiac arrest and classified as accidental before video emerged of him being stunned, beaten and dragged by state troopers; Elijah McClain’s death in Colorado, ruled undetermined , though police had put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with a sedative; and George Floyd in Minnesota, ruled dead as a result of drug use and underlying health conditions until the tapes of an officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck emerged.

No National Standards

The point is there are no national standards, and little attempt to corral the data nationally for such analysis — something that would advance under the now-dead George Floyd Policing Bill. A federal law passed in 2014 requiring law enforcement agencies to report deaths in custody has yet to produce any public data.

That job has been left to journalists and civil rights groups. A narrower study of one year’s police deaths at Harvard in 2017 detailed similar results to this new research.

Obviously, the death certificate information strongly influences whether criminal charges are brought in such police deaths or whether families receive a civil settlement.

Then again, maybe as a nation, we just don’t want to know, just as we really don’t want to know about gun deaths or pollution effects or the practical results of a changing climate. Covid is teaching us anew that we think it is perfectly okay for individuals to “do their own research” on safety of vaccines rather than to collect and distribute this information in intelligible ways.

Since conclusions from data seem necessary for any public policy to emerge, we should welcome efforts to try to get at what the base information reflects.

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