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Police Killings in America Undercounted by More than Half, Lancet Study

More than half of all police-involved killings in the U.S. go unreported with the majority of victims being Black

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Divya Dhadd
Divya Dhadd

UNITED STATES: Police killings in America are undercounted by more than half, according to a new study published in the Lancet, a peer-reviewed journal, and Black Americans are more than three times more likely than whites to suffer police violence.

Research at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018, more than 55% of deaths, over 17,000 in total, from police violence were either misclassified or went unreported.

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The study also discovered that Black Americans are more likely than any other group to die from police violence and are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.

“Recent high-profile police killings of Black people have drawn worldwide attention to this urgent public health crisis, but the magnitude of this problem can’t be fully understood without reliable data,” said Fablina Sharara, a researcher at the University of Washington School of Medicine and co-lead author of the study.

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“Inaccurately reporting or misclassifying these deaths further obscures the larger issue of systemic racism that is embedded in many U.S. institutions, including law enforcement.”

To fully understand the underreporting of police-involved killings, researchers compared data from the US National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), a government database for tracking the U.S. population, with non-governmental, open-source databases that track police brutality. Open-source databases aggregate information from news reports and public record requests, capturing a wider range of fatal police-involved incidents.

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“Open-sourced data is a more reliable and comprehensive resource to help inform policies that can prevent police violence and save lives,” said Sharara.

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The report has been published at a key moment, as police violence comes under renewed scrutiny after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer, which prompted Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across the country. A string of other high-profile killings by officers has deepened the mistrust between the public and police.

The Lancet study, which was funded by a string of organisations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, addresses one of the longest time spans yet attempted in studying police violence.

“As a community we need to do more. Efforts to prevent police violence and address systemic racism in the USA, including body cameras that record interactions of police with civilians along with de-escalation training and implicit bias training for police officers, for example, have largely been ineffective,” said co-lead author Eve Wool.


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