More than 17,000 police violence deaths were not reported since 1980, study finds

As recent high-profile killings by police in the United States have prompted calls for more extensive and public reporting on police violence, a new study shows that more than 17,000 deaths from police violence were not reported between 1980 and 2018. 

The study, published in "The Lancet," examines the presence and extent of under-reporting of police violence in U.S. government-run vital registration data. 

The researchers compared data from the U.S.A. National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) to three non-governmental, open-source databases on police violence. From there, they extracted and standardized the age, sex, state of death registration, year of death, and race and ethnicity.

The study found, across all races and states in the U.S., an estimated 30,800 deaths from police violence between 1980 and 2018, which represents 17,100 more deaths than reported by NVSS.

"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 authors wrote. "The burden of fatal police violence is an urgent public health crisis in the USA. Mounting evidence shows that deaths at the hands of the police disproportionately impact people of certain races and ethnicities, pointing to systemic racism in policing."

In addition, in 2018, the most recent year of NVSS data available, there was an average of 642 deaths missing out of 1240 total estimated deaths, which is a misclassification of 51·8%. 

Meanwhile, the total under-reporting was found to be disparate by race and ethnicity. From 1980 to 2018, the greatest under-reporting of deaths was among non-Hispanic Black people, with 5670 deaths. 

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"Stark inequities in the burden of police killings by race and ethnicity within the USA highlight the urgent need to address systemic racism within the US police force," the study authors continued. "This study can serve as a framework in guiding future research to address the under-reporting of police violence in additional countries."

The authors noted that further work remains for researchers and public health officials to swiftly adopt open-source data collection initiatives to provide accurate estimates and advocate for policy changes. 

The unlawful deaths and excessive force by police on Black Americans over the last 18 months, from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Ahmaud Arbery, have sparked protests nationwide over racism and a renewed debate over police reform.

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In February, President Joe Biden urged Americans to remember Arbery a year after the unarmed Black jogger was shot and killed after being pursued through a neighborhood by three White men in Georgia.

"A Black man should be able to go for a jog without fearing for his life," Biden wrote on social media. "Today, we remember Ahmaud Arbery’s life and we dedicate ourselves to making this country safer for people of color."

Then, in March, House Democrats passed the most ambitious effort in decades to overhaul policing nationwide, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill never advanced in 2020 in the Senate.

The bill was named after the man who was killed by police in Minnesota in 2020. Police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while arresting him. Chauvin was convicted of multiple charges including murder.