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A large number of police-related deaths are going unrecorded

The media is keeping better track than the government, according to a new study.

 

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BY JESSICA LAHITOU

The systemic problems within police departments across the nation have been a hotly debated topic for several years now. After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, kicked off protests that would become the foundation of Black Lives Matter, public attention to racial profiling and other policing tactics picked up considerably. For those who want reform in America’s police force, the findings of a recent study will probably serve as further evidence that the system needs to change. In a study released this week, researchers at Harvard found that police-related deaths are woefully underreported.

The study’s authors came to their conclusion by examining reports issued by the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) and comparing those numbers to media collected by The Counted, an online database run by The Guardian that compiles news stories of police-related deaths.

While the NVSS reported a total of 530 deaths that were police-related in 2015, The Counted had collected 1,086 stories that fit the correct definition for a “legal intervention” cause of death.

When the Harvard team looked into the reason for this discrepancy, they found the disparity came from coroners and medical examiners misreporting on hundreds of death certificates the cause of death as “assault” rather than “legal intervention,” the term used by the NVSS to designate a police-related fatality.

Notably, a cause of death labeled “legal intervention” does not entail any implication of wrongdoing or unlawful use of force. It’s the term used in all deaths that occur as a result of a police officer’s actions, regardless of the details surrounding any particular altercation. Still, in hundreds of cases, coroners and medical examiners listed “assault” rather than “legal intervention” as the cause of death.

The study concluded that the real number of deaths that should have been labeled “legal intervention” was 1,086, far higher than the 530 reported by the NVSS. Examining death certificates, the research team found 599 of the deaths tracked by The Counted had been mislabeled, which explains the substantial gap between the two numbers.

It wasn’t the only jarring finding for the Harvard team. Doctoral candidate Justin Feldman, one of the study’s authors, tells Bustle:

 

 

 
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