Harvard Medical: Police Killings Public Health Epidemic

Above Photo: ERIC THAYER / REUTERS

“No act of Congress is needed. No police department need be involved.”

Harvard researchers have called on US Public Health Agencies to consider police killings and police deaths public health issues. With that request, researches are also echoing numerous activists who are urging them to begin tracking the number of people killed by police.

The proposal was inspired by a year of continuous protests and public pressure from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which stemmed from the murder of unarmed Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, and the consistent police murders and protests that have happened since.

As there are no official numbers, the best available data comes from independent news agencies like the Guardian (UK), who reported that 1,058 Americans have been killed by police in 2015. For African Americans, the number of law enforcement-related deaths per capita is twice as high as it is in the white population.

Their project, “The Counted” also indicates that US civilians are killed by police at an average of about three times a day. It includes cases of police who kill armed suspects, which many vocal police supporters consider justified without carefully examining the situation.

The Summary Points of the proposal from Harvard outline both the problem and a solution:

  • During the past year, the United States has experienced major controversies—and civil unrest—regarding the endemic problem of police violence and police deaths.

  • Although deaths of police officers are well documented, no reliable official US data exist on the number of persons killed by the police, in part because of long-standing and well-documented resistance of police departments to making these data public.

  • These deaths, however, are countable, as evidenced by “The Counted,” which revealed that over 500 people in the US had been killed by the police between January 1 and June 9, 2015, twice what would be expected based on estimates from the US Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI).

  • Law-enforcement–related deaths, of both persons killed by law enforcement agents and also law enforcement agents killed in the line of duty, are a public health concern, not solely a criminal justice concern, since these events involve mortality and affect the well-being of the families and communities of the deceased; therefore, law-enforcement–related deaths are public health data, not solely criminal justice data.

  • We propose that law-enforcement–related deaths be treated as a notifiable condition, which would allow public health departments to report these data in real-time, at the local as well as national level, thereby providing data needed to understand and prevent the problem.

Making police killings a notifiable condition would require Police Departments to report each killing to their corresponding Public Health Department. Medical and public health professionals would then report law-enforcement related deaths in real time.

Researchers say this is critical for the well being of the public, and that since efforts over the past century have been unsuccessful, it is imperative that the government treat law-enforcement related deaths as reportable conditions.

They even mention how absurd it is that in the US, we have to rely on a UK newspaper to count the number of people being killed by police. The US public health system already reports numerous notifiable diseases nationally and in real time.

Predictably, police organizations attacked the idea with typical rhetoric. Common Health reports that Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said he thinks it’s “misguided” and added, “The best way to reduce the number of deaths by police is to follow the instructions of the officer in any kind of confrontation. I don’t have a lot of hope that academics from Harvard would publicize that as an easy and quick way to reduce deaths by police.”

Of course the Public Health Department’s counting of law enforcement related deaths would be separate from any investigation. All that is being proposed is an official count, something that the public can rely upon to get real-time alerts about police killings.

The proposal mentions US Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s statement that the DOJ will begin piloting its own system based on “The Counted” to keep track of “officer-related deaths,” and then “move towards verifying facts about the incident by surveying local police departments, medical examiner’s offices, and investigative offices.”

Researchers write that this underlines the need for a public health approach. A credible source of data and verification is all the more important if the proposed DOJ pilot is successful, and continues through the next 2016 election.

Law enforcement agencies have failed to properly report police killings for an entire century, so why should the public trust them to do it now?

  • Chris Pfohl

    How about all the weapons and the proliferation of assault weapons in this country. Maybe if citizens had more restrictions on fire arm purchases; the police would not have to worry so much about being shot at.