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CDC Report Recognizes Police-Perpetrated Killing as Major Cause of Violent Death

Federal researchers detailed huge racial disparities in deadly police violence, but crucial data is still missing.

Police mass around a commemoration of the third anniversary of George Floyd's death at the hands of police, in New York City, on May 25, 2023.

In a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), federal researchers acknowledge in detail that police-perpetrated killings are a major cause of violent death in the United States, and Black and Indigenous men are disproportionally killed by police compared to all other groups tracked in the data.

Experts say the new analysis is a positive step for the CDC, but crucial data on people who died while in police custody or inside local jails is likely missing due to gaps in reproting. Reforms meant to address police violence have stalled across the country, and reckless police shootings and reports of lethal neglect continue to make headlines three years after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, sparking a nationwide uprising.

About 71,000 violent deaths were recorded across the United States in 2020, according to the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System, which collects data from death certificates, police reports, coroners and health providers. While a majority of violent deaths were recorded as suicides (58 percent) and homicides (31 percent), experts say the CDC’s most recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report examines police-perpetrated killings in detail and calls for more research on glaring racial disparities.

About 961 of the violent deaths recorded in 2020 are classified by the CDC as “legal intervention deaths,” or deaths caused by “law enforcement and other persons” with legal authority to use lethal force. Experts say this is almost certainly an undercount that excludes many deaths in police custody, and the CDC notes that “legal intervention” is a technical term and does not imply that a police-perpetrated killing was legally justified.

Alarmingly, the CDC researchers report that Indigenous and Alaska Native men died of “legal intervention” at the highest rate when adjusted for population

The CDC data from 2020 aligns with independent analyses showing that police kill an average of 1,000 people each year. Mapping Police Violence reports that around 1,200 people were killed by police in 2022, the highest annual number of deaths recorded over the past decade. Most people died from gunshot wounds, and 1,079 people were shot and killed by police over the past 12 months, according to The Washington Post’s gun violence trackers.

Alarmingly, the CDC researchers report that Indigenous and Alaska Native men died of “legal intervention” at the highest rate when adjusted for population, with Indigenous men killed by police at a rate six times higher than white men in 2020. Black men were killed by police at a rate 2.4 times higher than white men, who accounted for about half of all “legal intervention deaths” that year.

A previous review of NVDRS data from 17 states between 2009 and 2012 found that a majority of victims were white, but when adjusted for population, the fatality rate from lethal use of police force was 2.8 times higher among Black people. The most recent CDC report contains deaths reported in 48 states and Washington, D.C.

Research also shows that Black people are twice as likely to be killed and five times more likely to be seriously injured than white people during an encounter with police, and the police-perpetrated killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tyre Nichols and many other Black people continues to fuel police reform and abolition movements.

There is generally a shortage of reliable data on the number of people killed by state violence in the U.S., and the CDC’s report is no different, says Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist and a visiting scientist at Harvard University. While the CDC’s data on deaths and injuries caused by police has improved over the years, Feldman said researchers have shied away from the broader health implications of police violence and the carceral state. He said a CDC journal previously declined to publish a paper Feldman co-authored with public health officials on injuries caused by police.

The CDC’s federal data on violent deaths at the hands of law enforcement likely excludes hundreds if not thousands of people who were killed while in police custody or who died inside local jails

“In my mind, they didn’t want to touch it for political reasons,” Feldman said in an interview.

Feldman said the CDC’s federal data on violent deaths at the hands of law enforcement likely excludes hundreds if not thousands of people who were killed while in police custody or who died inside local jails due to abuse, medical neglect and other forms of violence. Multiple states have resisted gathering and sharing data on deaths-in-custody with the federal government despite laws passed by Congress, according to the Justice Department.

Feldman said the recording of a “legal intervention death” typically happens locally, where coroners and public health officials may be under political pressure from police they work with on a regular basis. A 2013 survey by the National Association of Medical Examiners found that 70 percent of coroners and forensic pathologists reported being facing pressure to influence their findings, and 30 percent said they suffered negative consequences in retaliation for resisting pressure from law enforcement and others.

In many cases, deaths-in-custody occur during or after an arrest, when people are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. The system for classifying deaths is arbitrary, Feldman said, and whether a death is recorded as the result of “legal intervention” often depends on the practices and beliefs of individual examiners who may come under political pressure.

However, the CDC said in a statement that NVDRS analysts abstract data from death certificates, coroner reports and law enforcement reports, and they can independently classify a death as caused by “legal intervention.” The cause of death on a death certificate may differ from what ultimately ends up in the database.

But Feldman said the question is not what happens to data in the NVDRS, it’s whether the data gets there in the first place.

“If it’s a death in custody, and the medical examiner calls it ‘accidental,’ which is pretty common, it’s not going into the data set,” Feldman said. “What I’m interested in is deaths that come after either use of force, like Tasers, beatings, restraints or medical neglect. The data there is a complete mess in every dataset that exists.”

The CDC points out that the NVDRS does include data on deaths and injuries sorted by type of weapon or cause of death, such as firearms, poisoning, and an “Other”category that includes “Taser, electrocution, nail gun, exposure to environment/weather.”

Whether deaths caused by a police Taser or restraint were originally classfied as homicides and added

“NVDRS is missing a lot of deaths that come about from what’s generally thought of as less-lethal force,” Feldman said in an email. “This represents more than 100 deaths per year in police custody, and I’d roughly estimate another 100 in carceral settings.”

Correction: The initial version of this story suggested the CDC’s MMWR dived into data on racial disparities among deaths by “legal intervention” for the first time, but the agency compiled such data from 2009 to 2012 in this report. This article has been updated with additional information from the CDC.

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