Thousands of police-related deaths from 1980 to 2018 were misclassified, researchers say

Public health researchers say there have been 17,100 more deaths from police violence between 1980 and 2018 than originally reported by the National Vital Statistics System or NVSS. 

Researchers published their findings in an article available in The Lancet. 

They also found that Black people die at the hands of police 3.5 times the rate of Whites.

Researchers gathered their findings, including death certificates and physical characteristics of victims, from three databases: Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence, and The Counted. 

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They then concluded that a total of 30,800 people have died as the result of police violence, with the highest number of cases involving non-Hispanic, Black victims. 

"We found that more than half of all deaths due to police violence that we estimated in the USA from 1980 to 2018 were unreported in the NVSS," the study said. 

Researchers blame the misclassification on death certificates filled out by other officials besides a physician and not noting the death occurred from a police altercation. 

"Physicians are typically responsible for filling out the cause of death section of the death certificate; however, a medical examiner or coroner who may or may not also be a physician will do so for homicides or cases where there is suspicion of crime or foul play, including police violence," the study added.

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"Systemic misclassification and undercounting of deaths due to police violence in USA vital registration data has been well documented," the study continued. 

Researchers are calling for changes in the reporting system to address "the public health crisis of police violence." They’re calling for more training on how to properly fill out death certificates and documenting police violence. They also propose for coroners and forensic medical experts to work independently of law enforcement to avoid pressure and be afforded whistleblower privileges when they suspect the death was the result of police violence.

But their overall message is calling an end to police brutality such as using mental health crisis workers and emergency medical technicians in situations rather than law enforcement. They noted the changes in some police departments across the country following the 2020 death of George Floyd. 

The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

This story was reported from Los Angeles.