Tracking Deaths by Law Enforcement Necessary to Public Health

High-profile shootings by law enforcement in the last year have brought attention to the decades-long debate about lethal force used by police in the U.S. Many protests, particularly by civil rights groups and the growing Black Lives Matter campaign, believe officers are intentionally and disproportionately targeting people of color, particularly young men. However, other conservative groups insist police force was justified in most or all of the high profile cases. The fact is that it is nearly impossible to know the number, race, gender and other important facts about people killed by law enforcement each year. Why? A national, public database that carefully accounts for each death does not exist.


Police officers holding riot shields and wooden batons stand and watch protesters during a night time demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 19, 2014. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
Police officers holding riot shields and wooden batons stand and watch protesters during a night time demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 19, 2014. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Regardless of whether a fatality would be considered justified by law enforcement, deaths should be accurately reported and available to the public in a national database. Deaths attributable to law enforcement are critical to public health efforts to track mortality and determine the wellbeing of communities.

Knowing the individual’s demographic characteristics, location and cause of death would help inform the debate about police use of lethal force and help to prevent any inequities in treatment toward monitories. In a time when trust in law enforcement is at an all-time low, especially among African Americans, a national database could also help increase transparency and eventually trust in law enforcement. Most importantly, it could help inform policies that would improve communities and save lives.


The FBI does produce a report on justifiable homicides, but research has found this report mostly inaccurate. Other efforts to track fatalities have been undertaken by non-governmental organizations, such as Fatal Encounters and the U.K. newspaper The Guardian (the fact that we have to rely on a foreign entity to count our police-related deaths is just sad). The Guardian reports there were 1,138 fatalities by officers in 2015, one-fourth (26.5%) of which were of Black Americans, which is double their representation in the U.S. They found 30% of these individuals were thought to be unarmed. While these efforts are obviously useful and important, they are not perfect because they must rely on tips from the public. Therefore the numbers remain unofficial estimates.


A December essay by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers noted that officer-related deaths are not strictly a criminal justice concern, but also a public health one. They accurately point out that officer-related deaths not only directly harm the individual and the police officer, but also take a toll on their family members and communities. The high-profile cases also affect the mental health of citizens nationwide who feel their race is under attack. This vicious cycle fuels distrust in law enforcement and sometimes more violence. Accurate mortality and morbidity data is essential to public health efforts. The health of communities, especially those with a high officer presence, would benefit if the nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies were required to report officer-involved shootings to the U.S. Department of Justice. Not only would we be able to accurately identify communities that are disproportionately affected, we could then increase prevention and public health efforts in those areas.


We recently wrote about the value to public health of allowing research on gun violence and about the importance of tracking police stops. Our argument for data on officer-related fatalities follows the same reasoning. Without publicly available, accurate data at the local level, we cannot engage in quality research. This greatly limits public health efforts, resulting in the suffering of individual and community wellbeing.

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