Straight, No Chaser: Police Killings are a Public Health Epidemic

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Consider the following statement, ripped from the headlines: “Harvard Study: Police Kill More People Than Pneumonia, Influenza, Measles – Should be Treated as a Public Health Epidemic.”

Pause.

Public health is oblivious to your politics. It views any threat to your health and existence as a problem needing to be quantified and addressed. A statement that police killings are a public health epidemic truly is a measure of how far gone we are as a society, whether you view these killings as justified or not (don’t fool yourself, they’re not, particularly when you can note that African-Americans remain 3 times more likely to be killed by police officers than the general population).

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In its review, the Harvard School of Public Health (Go, Crimson!) study notes that as of September 19, 2015, the 842 people killed by police exceeded the total death due to pneumonia and influenza (585), measles (188), malaria (786 cases), and mumps (436 cases), and approached the number of cases of Hepatitis A (890 cases). The toll reached 1000 on November 16, 2015.

Besides acknowledging the massive number of deaths, the point is relatively simple. While simultaneous efforts are made on the political spectrum to demand change, systematic review must occur to quantify the problem as a means of most effectively attacking it. This can lead to better understanding of the areas at highest risk, the most appropriate allocation of resources, and the development of educational tools and disincentives meant to reduce the killings. Here’s a few questions that would be answered by such a review:

  • Are there actually this many crimes that require use of deadly force? If so, why? What are the root causes, and how can they be addressed?
  • Are police really unable to control suspects and perpetrators of crimes without use of deadly force? If not, why not?
  • What explains the disproportionate use of deadly force against African-Americans?
  • What additional institutional measures need to be implemented to support appropriate police activity and curtail inappropriate police activity?

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You may be surprised to know that currently, although the deaths of police officers are counted, there is no reliable source of accounting for the killing of civilians by the police. In this most recent example, researchers actually had to turn to a British newspaper, The Guardian, which had been maintaining an actual tally (it is beyond irony that the tally was double the FBI estimate). Local police departments have not been required to provide such data to the government in the past. The US Attorney General has just announced the intention to change this fact.

It is true that killings of police officers and by police officers bring angst to communities. Regardless of cause, it’s time to acknowledge and own the fact that the rate of occurrence between the two is nowhere near equivalent. It’s past time to put in place appropriate measures to track killings and address those that occur in a criminal manner. The benefit of the doubt law enforcement has historically enjoyed has been lost, and as a public health consideration, it’s time to objectify the conversation. Such measures will protect the innocent civilians and policeman while ensuring otherwise appropriate action is maintained. Two crimes don’t make a right.

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This post references the following: “Police killings and police deaths are public health data and can be counted,” Nancy Krieger, Jarvis T. Chen, Pamela D. Waterman, Mathew V. Kiang, and Justin Feldman, PLOS Medicine, December 8, 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001915.

Feel free to ask your SMA expert consultant any questions you may have on this topic.

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