Why Mapping Police-Related Fatalities Matters

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Amidst the swirl of several intense, high-profile public debates concerning police brutality, a group of public health researchers from Harvard University is arguing that law enforcement-related deaths—both of police officers and of members of the public—are not strictly a criminal justice concern, but a public health concern as well. But just how can public health agencies boost public health by tracking and reporting on law-enforcement-related deaths?

How Many Lost

The mortality rate of U.S. police officers is already subject to meticulous tracking.  However, researchers at Harvard University have found that the number of deaths attributable to law enforcement remains “an official mystery.” Their official report, published in the journal PLoS Medicine, notes that the task of tracking police-related fatalities doesn’t fall on any single authority. In a nation of state and local law enforcement organizations, there are still no uniform rules requiring the public to be notified of such deaths. And in the majority of cases, they found that police departments are “reluctant to release timely details to the public” for fear of damaging an ongoing investigation, being subject to bad public relations, or other related concerns.

A New Metric

The study’s authors suggest creating stricter, uniform accounting for such incidents, with the concept that producing such statistical data may help illuminate patterns that lead to the systemic disadvantaging of certain groups. A death toll compiled by British newspaper The Guardian reported an unofficial tally of 886 people in the United States who were killed by police in 2015; no such tally is available in any U.S.-based paper or journal.  Adoption of the proposal would at least take the numbers seriously, if not make them official. “It is startling that we in the U.S. must rely on a U.K. newspaper for systematic, timely counts of the number of persons killed by the police,” states PLoS Medicine. “After all, we have a world-class public health system that reports nationally, in real time, on numerous notifiable diseases and also on deaths occurring in 122 cities with populations [greater than] 100,000.”

As of 1999, only 20 studies in public health literature measured instances of self-reported discrimination. Though the number of studies linking discrimination and health now exceeds 500, the scope is still narrow: public health studies still primarily focus on interpersonal discrimination, with virtually no research methods available concerning the health impacts of systemic discriminationwhich dovetails with a lack of research on political systems relative to overall population health.

Increased Accountability

The study stresses the importance of statistical and reporting accountability, adding that such raw data has the power to legitimize public health complaints and concerns regarding potential abuses by law enforcement. A core premise of the proposal is that “mortality and morbidity due to police violence is a matter of public health, not just criminal justice, as is the occupational health of law-enforcement officials.” Regarding both those killed by the police and police that are killed in the line of duty, not only are those individuals directly harmed, but their families and communities suffer emotional, financial, and even physiological repercussions as a result. Public health administrations have a duty to document all deaths that have occurred and their apparent causes. “It is a separate matter, in the realm of the legal system,” the authors say, “to determine the circumstances or under which the deaths have occurred.”  Only when all deaths are counted and factored into epidemiological research can we get a true picture of public health and its gaps in the system.