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The CDC, Like the FBI, Dramatically Undercounts Deaths at Hands of Police

Due to lack of information from death certificates, only half are properly recorded.

Police tapeOlivier Le Queinec / DreamstimeThe media do a better job at keeping track of who the government kills than the government does. Go figure.

By "who the government kills," I specifically mean who the police kill. A new study released this week shows that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which tracks stats on causes of death in the National Vital Statistics System, seriously undercounts how many people in the United States are killed during encounters with police.

The report was put together by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, who compared the CDC's numbers for 2015 to The Guardian's database of people killed in police encounters in the United States.

Not only did the CDC undercount the deaths, but it did so dramatically, catching only half of them. The researchers counted 1,166 fatalities that year. The Guardian's database caught 1,086 of them. The CDC registered only 643.

Justin Feldman, lead author of the study, explained to Reuters that the CDC relies on diagnosis codes in state death certificates that indicate "legal intervention" was involved in the death. But many medical examiners and coroners fail to mention police involvement on these documents.

This seems to happen most frequently with deaths that don't involve guns (such as a person dying after getting Tasered) and with deaths in less wealthy counties. As just one example, none of the 30 people killed by police in Oklahoma in 2015 were included in the CDC count.

The CDC isn't the only agency doing a bad job of tracking these deaths. In fact, the Guardian project—and another by The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer—were devised because the FBI's efforts are so insufficient.

The FBI does have a program to track police killings, but participation is voluntary and many law enforcement agencies do not participate. In some cases, entire states don't participate. So the FBI, tasked with tracking national statistics on violence and crime, does not have good numbers. They've got amazing stats on how many police are themselves killed or assaulted every year. But they don't have reliable figures on how many people the police themselves kill.

The FBI announced in 2015 that it will work on improving these statistics to make them more reliable, but the bureau lacks the authority to mandate full participation by law enforcement agencies. Civil rights groups would like the FBI to try to tie federal grants to participation in the program.

If we don't have the most basic information on how many people the police kill, that makes it all the harder to evaluate the circumstances behind these deaths, the trends they might represent, and whether there are changes that could reduce the risks of someone dying.

"As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the U.S.," notes Nancy Krieger, one of the report's authors, in a press release.

Check out the report out here at PLOS Medicine.

Photo Credit: Olivier Le Queinec / Dreamstime

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    And what does the CDC have to say for itself?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Civil rights groups would like the FBI to try to tie federal grants to participation in the program.

    GASP! Withholding money in an effort to coerce compliance? Has that ever been done? IS IT EVEN LEGAL?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    The CDC lists Eric Garner's official cause of death as "smoking related," doesn't it.

  • Chipper Morning, Mean Girl||

    And Philando Castille died from lead poisoning.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    The CDC's lead poisoning dossier must be quite extensive.

  • juris imprudent||

    You sure that wasn't a "traffic incident"?

  • ||

    A "marijuana-related" traffic incident.

  • sarcasmic||

    If we don't have the most basic information on how many people the police kill, that makes it all the harder to evaluate the circumstances behind these deaths, the trends they might represent, and whether there are changes that could reduce the risks of someone dying.

    From the point of view of the police this is a feature, not a bug.

  • colorblindkid||

    According to WaPo, 10 unarmed black men, 11 unramed white men, and 8 unarmed Hispanic men have been killed by police this year.

  • Chipper Morning, Mean Girl||

    How do I know if I've been ramed?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    YOU GET RAMED WHEN STEVE SMITH JUST HAVE DENTAL PROCEDURE.

  • Sam Haysom||

    If it's tony I imagine you wouldn't know.

  • Otis B. Driftwood||

    OT: Watching Tony's one-dimensional, sanctimonious ilk eat each other alive on Twitter over the Weinstein affair is absolutely DEEEEE-LISH!!!!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Tony himself was banned from Twitter for "being a joyless self-involved bore."

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    That must be the gentlemanly way to say "humorless cunt".

  • Citizen X - #6||

    It's a seldom-invoked legal clause in their terms of service.

  • Tony||

    I made a funny joke here yesterday but you were all too stupid to get it.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    [citation needed]

  • Tony||

    Get your wife and/or mother tipsy and then ask them if you're stupid. There's your citation.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    That's how you found out, huh? Spiked your mom's Geritol with vodka?

  • sarcasmic||

    That's how you found out, huh? Spiked your mom's Geritol with vodka?

    lol

  • Tony||

    My mother drinks chardonnay almost to the exclusion of all else.

  • sarcasmic||

    Box wine. Classy.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    The "including during pregnancy" is unstated but obvious.

  • sarcasmic||

    The "including during pregnancy" is unstated but obvious.

    lol

  • Tony||

    There is some drinkable wine in boxes, snob. It's about volume.

  • Otis B. Driftwood||

    2010 Tony: "You can't criticize Obama drone-murdering American citizens cuz fuckin BOOOOOSH1!!1!!"

    2017 Tony: "You can't criticize Weinstein for raping minors cuz fuckin DRUUUUUMF!!!1!1!"

    This partisan goober has absolutely ZERO integrity.

  • Tony||

    Yes I have been notably vocal in my support for Harvey Weinstein. I mean he donated all that money to my campaign for high school president back in the day. And if women don't want to be jerked off to, they should try looking a little uglier.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Shreek is the one who's been carrying (probably ejaculated-into) water for Weinstein. Know your trolls, Otis.

  • Longtobefree||

    However, the CDC has counted everyone of those deaths as a 'gun related' health problem. Said health problem requiring additional grants for further study, of course.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    And will be cited in all future advocacy in favor of gun control.

  • juris imprudent||

    Police wouldn't have to wildly gun down people were it not for that war against them. How many chances can you ask them to take?

  • ||

    The CDC, Like the FBI, Dramatically Undercounts Deaths at Hands of Police

    But I've been told by Reason's own science correspondent that their estimated projections of 200-300K cases of Lyme Disease per year are spot on!

  • Ken Hagler||

    Why is the CDC counting such deaths in the first place? Is being a cop a communicable disease now?

  • dantheserene||

    Holding CDC to controlling diseases is a ship that sailed long ago.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    The U.S. population in 2016 was 321,000,000. Of that population, 1,166 people were killed by police. That number is unqualified, meaning that some were engaged in criminal activity and some were not. And I hate to say it and sound cold as ice, but much as we may abhor the death of anyone at the hands of the police, 1,166 out of 321,000,000 is a statistical non-event. The very fact that deaths such as Philando Castile and Justine Damond stand out in stark relief is testimony to this. If deaths of people at the hands of the police were commonplace nobody would notice.

    Yes, we should all work toward perfection in our policing. But let us also recognize and admit that it is ridiculous to expect any police system to work perfectly. And it is equally ludicrous to scream about revamping an entire system based on these numbers. And no, I don't care what John Donne had to say.

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