Spokane — A new study by the University of Washington shows deaths related to police violence are vastly underreported.
The 17-page report published last month by UW’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation details data collection surrounding police violence in categories such as race, age and gender. The research suggests that the U.S. National Vital Statistics System, the government system meant to collect all death certificates in the U.S., “failed to accurately classify and report more than 17,000 deaths as being caused by police violence.”
According to the researchers, the inaccuracies and miscalculations in the reporting furthers the systemic issue of police violence.
“Inaccurately reporting or misclassifying these deaths further obscures the larger issue of systemic racism that is embedded in many U.S. institutions, including law enforcement,” the paper’s authors and researchers said in a statement.
UW researchers collected data from Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence and The Counted — nonprofit entities that collect data related to police violence on city and state levels. They are not affiliated with government or police.
Fablina Sharara, one of the authors of the study, referred to open-source systems as “the necessary alternative” to government and law enforcement counts.
“The open-source databases are the most accurate on police violence,” Sharara said. “I see a huge need for them as we improve our accuracy in reporting police violence.
“One thing that we hoped for (people to recognize) in our paper is that over 65% of police violence were not reported as part of the vital statistics system. One of the things we want people to take away is that (police violence) is a systemic problem, and it’s a system that needs to be addressed for transparency and accountability in police violence.”
In Spokane, public safety measures are being put in place to deal with use-of-force issues.
Bart Logue, the police ombudsman, said the data collection efforts start with “leveling the playing field” to make sure data is received correctly. He noted the Spokane Police Department does report some information to the Washington State Department of Health, which goes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a memo written to Logue, Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl details some of Spokane Police Department’s response. In 2020, the department participated in Department of Justice Cops Collaborative Reform, which “extensively overhauled the method and manner of reporting use of force,” along with “annual mandatory use of force training.”
Logue agreed about the open-data approach that the UW research authors took in the report.
“It would be very difficult to pull that data out correctly, so these sites using public news articles and different reports and open source data, I agree that they do allow a greater glimpse into it. I think since I’ve been involved in oversight, it’s hard to define what the problem is when nobody has the same data.”
The UW report also revealed racial disparities within police violence.
Police violence against Black Americans has caught global attention in recent years after Trayvon Martin’s 2012 death sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, which caught steam again last summer once George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed during violent police interactions.
Black Americans faced the most police violence during the 40-year study, making them more than 3.5 times more likely to die at the hands of police.
In the racial breakdown, National Vital Statistics System missed 56% of deaths of non-Hispanic white people, 33% of non-Hispanic people of other races and 50% of Hispanic people of any race, according to the study.
Research based on immigration or specific groups within the African diaspora outside of Black Americans was not reported, but categories such as gender and age were added to capture a clearer picture of who is dying.
“We wanted to look at several dimensions to give people that information, so I think those disparities in sex are very large between men and women, and I think it was important to show, especially which age groups are impacted by police violence,” Sharara said. “It’s a direct action to make changes against police violence.”
Sharara added that age and sex are important data to consider when looking at different causes of death.
Kurtis Robinson, vice president of the NAACP, noted the data “confirms” the common belief of discrimination against people of color, specifically Black people.
“Open sources … help complete the picture and ratify the perspectives and the advocates who have been negatively impacted by the heinous atrocities that have been committed over the years,” Robinson said. “The police force was not set up to favor people of color and neither was the justice system. Instead of arguing and debating that, we have to launch (reform) from a place to own that. All of the evidence points to that.”
Robinson adds new avenues to hold people accountable should be taken. The data shows the issue of police violence is systemic, so individually punishing officers in the name of accountability does not change the culture. Robinson believes restorative accountability is the best way to eradicate the issues of police brutality and underreporting.
“The restorative perspective looks at the issue behind the event as well as the appropriate consequences for the behavior,” Robinson said. “We have to ask, how do we ask the human to do better than this particular event and what’s our responsibility as a human family to wrap around support with accountability dynamics to achieve that?
“Instead of getting kicked off the island because they did this terrible thing. Restorative accountability doesn’t do that, but punitive accountability does.”
Along with the importance of open-source data collection, the UW research expresses the need for diverse categories and why police violence is considered a “public health crisis,” the authors said.
Violence has been labeled as a public health issue since the 1980s in three categories: self-harm, interpersonal and collective violence.
Since police violence is a vast problem in countries, such as Brazil and the U.S., experts must approach police violence as a collective, all-hands-on-deck effort in order to eradicate it, said Mohsen Naghavi, the senior author of the report.
Both Naghavi and Sharara acknowledge University of Washington limitations in the report.
Since people are only identified by their gender label at the time, there is no clear information about victims who do not identify within the gender binary system at the time of their deaths.
The Lancet, the peer-reviewed medical journal in which the study was published, said reports including UW’s reduce “hostile or violent interactions between police and civilians, particularly those who are most vulnerable overall.”
“The most important outcome that we would like to see from our people is policy change to prevent police violence,” Sharara said.
Logue is interested to see what Washington’s data on use of force will look like once legislation which limits the use of officer’s ability to use weapons or force, signed into law this year by Gov. Jay Inslee, is factored in. The law states that training on force and bias is mandatory.
“We’ll really see how the numbers are trending, then, as we go into 2022 and 2023, longer periods of time are better to assess periods of data,” Logue said. “Regardless, the goal has to be, regardless of where you are in this state, it has to be a safer community for the police and people they interact with.”
Amber D. Dodd’s work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.