Harvard report says fatal police shootings need to be treated as dangers to public health
Police officer with a gun (Shutterstock)

Essay drawing on Guardian data collected for The Counted investigation says killings by US police should be reported to government health authorities

By Ciara McCarthy

Killings by police are a public health concern and should be reported to government health authorities, Harvard researchers have said.

In an essay drawing on Guardian data that was published on Tuesday in PLOS Medicine journal, researchers from Harvard’s School of Public Health said local health departments should record instances of law enforcement related deaths through the same mechanism used to track infectious diseases.

“Police killings and police deaths are public health data and should be counted as such,” the essay’s lead author Dr Nancy Krieger said. “Public health brings in a perspective about prevention and that’s very different from a legal perspective.”

Krieger and her colleagues used data from The Counted, a Guardian project that is tracking all deaths by law enforcement in the US this year, to identify patterns about which populations are most at risk for being killed by police and the geographic variations in police killings.

Krieger said that when The Counted launched on June 1, it provided a comprehensive source for data on deaths by law enforcement.

“The other pre-existing websites had been much more spotty in their coverage and clearly were not going to be a source of reliable data,” she said on Tuesday.

As of Tuesday evening, The Counted had tracked 1,058 people killed by law enforcement in 2015.

Justin Feldman, a doctoral candidate who co-authored the essay, said they chose to analyze The Counted’s database because it includes all deaths by law enforcement, including people killed died in custody and after Taser use.

“The public is not exclusively concerned about people being shot by police,” Feldman said, citing the high-profile case of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died from injuries he sustained during a prolonged ride in a police van.

Krieger and Feldman have proposed adding law enforcement-related deaths to the list of “notifiable” conditions that must be reported weekly to the CDC by local health departments. Right now, the list includes a variety of diseases like measles and tuberculosis, which are tracked locally and reported by the CDC in a weekly report. They recommend including both civilians killed by police and officers who die in the line of duty in this counting.

Krieger argues that tracking deaths by police could provide much-needed data absent accurate information on the subject from federal law enforcement agencies. Public health officials can publish accurate data through the existing CDC report without mandating law enforcement cooperation or waiting for congressional approval.

The FBI announced on Tuesday that it would overhaul its system for counting people killed by law enforcement officials, which has been much-criticized for undercounting such deaths because reporting is voluntary. Under the new system, which officials will begin to roll out as soon as 2016, the FBI will use a criteria similar to The Counted’s and track deaths involving Tasers and physical force, in addition to shootings. The Department of Justice Bureau is trialling its own system to track police-involved deaths.