Harvard Researchers: Police Killings a Public Health Issue




Inspired by protests and public pressure, researchers from Harvard are urging US Public Health Agencies to consider police killings a public health issue, and they’re asking that the numbers of those killed by police are officially recorded. The best available data for these numbers come from independent news agencies, such as The Guardian, whose project, “The Counted,” has indicated that US civilians are killed by police at an average of three times a day.


Although no reliable official data currently exist on the number of law enforcement-related deaths each year in the U.S., counting these deaths can and should be done because the data constitute crucial public health information that could help prevent future deaths, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. – Harvard Press Release


The Summary Points of Harvard’s proposal are outlined as follows:


  • During the past year, the United States has experienced major controversies—and civil unrest—regarding the endemic problem of police violence and police deaths.


  • Although deaths of police officers are well documented, no reliable official US data exist on the number of persons killed by the police, in part because of long-standing and well-documented resistance of police departments to making these data public.


  • These deaths, however, are countable, as evidenced by “The Counted,” which revealed that over 500 people in the US had been killed by the police between January 1 and June 9, 2015, twice what would be expected based on estimates from the US Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI).


  • Law-enforcement–related deaths, of both persons killed by law enforcement agents and also law enforcement agents killed in the line of duty, are a public health concern, not solely a criminal justice concern, since these events involve mortality and affect the well-being of the families and communities of the deceased; therefore, law-enforcement–related deaths are public health data, not solely criminal justice data.


  • We propose that law-enforcement–related deaths be treated as a notifiable condition, which would allow public health departments to report these data in real-time, at the local as well as national level, thereby providing data needed to understand and prevent the problem.


Police would be required to notify their Public Health Departments of each killing, which would allow medical and public health professionals to report police-related deaths in real time. Police organizations are attacking the idea with the argument that it is misguided. In this statement from the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, Bill Johnson:

The best way to reduce the number of deaths by police is to follow the instructions of the officer in any kind of confrontation. I don’t have a lot of hope that academics from Harvard would publicize that as an easy and quick way to reduce deaths by police.”


It’s being suggested that this retaliation from law enforcement is unfounded due to the fact the Public Health Department’s count of deaths would be separate from any investigation. All that’s being proposed is that the number of deaths be recorded.


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