By Richard Knox
Every week, it seems, a new police killing enters the news stream, sparking outrage, breeding cynicism, fraying still further the social compact between police and communities.
The issue reached a new peak just this week, when the Justice Department announced a probe of the Chicago Police Department, the nation’s second-largest, to determine if there has been “systematic misconduct.” The investigation comes in the wake of social unrest and the recent firing of the police commissioner, after two police killings there.
In fact, police killings happen in America far more often than once a week.
The best available data come from news organizations, such as a website launched earlier this year, ironically enough, by the British newspaper The Guardian. They show that U.S. civilians die at the hands of police nearly three times a day. So far this year, 1,055 Americans have been killed by police, by The Guardian count. The Washington Post has tallied up 913 people “shot dead by police this year.”
About 120 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Run through the Guardian’s website of civilian police-related deaths, called “The Counted,” and you’ll see that many of these everyday police killings involve suspects who were armed and menacing. The 14 people killed in the past week include the San Bernardino shooters and others who reportedly were threatening police officers. These are not the kind of cases that generate Black Lives Matter protests, although they shouldn’t necessarily be classified as justifiable use-of-force without careful investigation, either.
“No act of Congress is needed,” they write. “No police departments need to be involved. Public health agencies can do the job.”
The typical investigation focuses on the circumstances and actions in a specific case. But larger forces may be driving the phenomenon as well, forces that don’t get identified in case-by-case investigations. And that’s just the point of a new proposal, out Tuesday, that makes a strong case for collecting data on law enforcement-related deaths a matter of public health.
The authors, from the Harvard School of Public Health, assert that these killings — both by and of police — should be “notifiable” to public health agencies, just like homicides, suicides, many infectious disease deaths, work-related fatalities and injuries, and death by poisoning, fire and spinal cord injuries. That means they should as a matter of law be reported to health departments; currently police-related deaths are reportedly voluntarily (or not).
The Harvard researchers write, in the journal PLoS/Medicine, that death and injury due to police encounters are “a matter of public health, not just criminal justice, as is the occupational health of law-enforcement officials.”
“Deaths are part of our bailiwick,” lead author Nancy Krieger says.
She argues that only by compiling data on a national basis (but with details specific to local jurisdictions) can public health scientists identify time trends, racial-ethnic and geographical disparities, and other relevant indicators. And only then can they put these events in context with, say, the racial makeup of communities and police forces.
Such data now are fragmentary and delayed. Using what’s available, the researchers charted arrest-related deaths in eight U.S. cities at the top of The Guardian’s rankings, along with some recent hotspots such as Ferguson, Missouri.
“We show enormous variability over time among the eight cities,” Krieger says.
Take, for instance, the critical issue of black-white differences in who dies as the result of a police encounter. Continue reading