Should Law Enforcement-Related Death Data Be A Public Health Issue?


A new proposal from the Harvard School of Public Health makes a strong case for collecting data on law enforcement-related deaths a matter of public health, reports WBUR in Boston. The authors assert that killings both by and of police should be “notifiable” to public health agencies, just like homicides, suicides, many infectious disease deaths, work-related fatalities and injuries, and death by poisoning, fire and spinal cord injuries. That means they would as a matter of law be reported to health departments; currently police-related deaths are reportedly voluntarily (or not). The Harvard researchers write, in the journal PLoS/Medicine, that death and injury due to police encounters are “a matter of public health, not just criminal justice, as is the occupational health of law-enforcement officials.” Lead author Nancy Krieger says, “Deaths are part of our bailiwick.”

She argues that only by compiling data on a national basis (but with details specific to local jurisdictions) can public health scientists identify time trends, racial-ethnic and geographical disparities, and other relevant indicators. Only then can they put these events in context with, say, the racial makeup of communities and police forces. “I think it's misguided,” says Bill Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations. “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.” Criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University is skeptical that collecting data on police-related deaths by public health agencies will do much good. “I would agree that more data can only help,” he adds, “but we've got to be careful. These are not high numbers, so they're very volatile.” He adds: “Declaring it a public health issue isn't going to make things better.”

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