While this will not surprise anyone familiar with the state of police accountability in the United States, a new study reports that over half of killings by police have been mislabeled over the past 40 years. As also would be expected from anyone familiar with American policing, black men are killed and their deaths mislabeled at disproportionally high rates. One easy and obvious objection to the claims made in the study is to point out the federal government does not have a comprehensive system of tracking police caused deaths or use of force. As such, no one can claim to know the actual numbers.
On the one hand, that is a reasonable criticism. While journalists and academics have been tracking police deaths and use of force, this is a piecemeal effort that depends on the ability of individual journalists and researchers to gather and confirm information. While the National-Use-of-Force Data Collection lunched in 2019, most police departments simply decline to provide data. As such, we cannot claim to know the exact number of police caused deaths nor the exact percentage that have been mislabeled. We cannot also claim to know the exact number of police uses of force and what percentage of these were not justified.
That said, the authors of the study are using the best available data from the National Vital Statistics System, Fatal Encounters, Mapping Police Violence, and the Guardian’s The Counted. This data, while incomplete, does provide what seems to be the foundation for a reasonable inductive generalization from the sample to the whole. Naturally, we need to keep in mind the usual concerns about sample size and the possibility of a biased sample. But one cannot simply assert that the sample must be too small or biased; one would need to support these claims.
On the other hand, this criticism (perhaps ironically) just points to a huge problem: we do not have accurate and complete data on police killings and use of force. While one could claim that the missing data could show that there is no problem, one would think that if this were true, then the police would be all for making that data available. After all, it would help address criticism of the police and serve to improve their reputation. To be fair, perhaps the unavailable data would do just that, but the police are not making it available for some good reason that they have neglected to provide.
Requiring the police to provide such data would seem to be something that the left and right can agree on. The left, obviously, want that data. The right is constantly speaking of the dangers of government overreach, warning against tyrannical abuses of power, and demanding accountability. Since they are outraged by the cruel tyranny of the mask and vaccines, then their rage should be incandescent about the lack of police accountability. After all, a mask is at worst a slight discomfort while the police seem to be using the power of the state to get away with murder. I am, of course, not serious about this. I know that the right, in general, is onboard with the police using violence—if they are using it against people the right does not like. They do, of course, have a very different view when the police oppose them. But this does provide a way of using the bad faith rhetoric of the right against them. While this is not effective, it is at least funny. What is not funny is how police caused deaths are so often mislabeled.
While mislabeling can occur from error, one ongoing problem is that coroners and medical examiners can be too closely linked to law enforcement and in some cases a coroner can be a law enforcement official, such as a sheriff. There is the reasonable concern that a forensic examination conducted by someone associated with law enforcement or who is otherwise biased will not be accurate. The George Floyd case provides an example of how this can occur. As I argued in an earlier essay, this link needs to be broken to ensure that deaths caused by police are properly labeled. Other improvements would also need to be made, since there is a serious problem and it involves, of course, racism.
Black Americans are about 3.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by the police. Latinos and Native Americans are also more likely than whites to be killed. Looked at as a public health hazard, a person is more likely to be killed by the police than be killed while riding a bike—and bicycling is dangerous in the United States. Given the disproportionate killing of black Americans, it is not surprising that the study showed that 60% of their deaths were misclassified. States vary considerably in the accuracy of their reporting. Based on the study, Maryland does the best with only 16% of killings misclassified. Oklahoma does the worst, with 83%.
The available data shows that the police are engaging in disproportionate killing and that most of their killings are being misclassified. While some of the misclassification might be due to errors, this would only explain some cases. If it is claimed that most of the misclassifications are due to errors, this would be to claim that the system is plagued with gross incompetence and thus would still need a radical overhaul. One could, of course, also claim that researchers and journalists are lying about the misclassification. Supporting this claim would require providing competing data and evidence. This, as noted above, would be quite a challenge: the police generally do not provide this data. As such, a person claiming that the study is in error would need their own credible source of information. Obviously, simply launching ad hominem attacks on journalists and researchers would not refute their claims.
In closing, those who claim that the police are not engaged in disproportionate and unnecessary killing and that deaths are not being misclassified should support mandatory reporting by the police and overhauling who does the classification and how it is done. After all, if they are right, then accurate data would prove them right. Those that simply deny there is a problem while opposing efforts to gather accurate information might be engaged in wishful thinking or they might be aware of the problem but think that it is not a problem at all—that is, they are fine with what is happening and want it to keep happening.