New public database on officer-involved fatalities

At present, the government does not mandate the reporting of lethal force by police departments, and there is no official number of the number of people killed by police annually. The National Use-of-Force Data Collection is the first national-level attempt to offer big-picture insights on police use of force but it is still in its infancy, and participation rates have been so low that the database may shut down.

But thanks to researchers at University of Southern California (USC) Dornsife, a new open-source database on police-involved fatalities has emerged and preliminary findings have recently been released.

Official vs. Open-Source Data

When it comes to official data, there are a few less-than-ideal sources that can be used to roughly estimate the number of people killed by the police each year. These include the U.S. National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), which tracks death certificates and causes of death in the country, the Bureau of Justice Statistic (BJS)’s Arrest-Related Deaths Program, which is a national census of arrest-related deaths, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), which collects data from death certificates, coroner/medical examiner reports, law enforcement reports, and toxicology reports. Unfortunately though, these sources are still less than ideal: the NVSS numbers are likely undercounted, while national-level data from the NVDRS and the Arrest-Related Deaths Program is not yet publicly available.

Additionally, independent researchers have been gathering unofficial data on police-related fatalities using information from news reports, department websites, and public records requests. Four major non-governmental, open-source databases on police killings include the Washington Post’s Fatal Force,” The Guardian’s “The Counted,” Campaign Zero’s “Mapping Police Violence,” and USC’s “Fatal Encounters.” However, it remains unclear how comprehensive these sources are, as they rely (mostly) on media and news reports to gather data.

The National Officer Involved Homicide Database

As stated above, the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research has developed a new publicly-available database, the National Officer Involved Homicide Database (NOIHD). The database is a supplement to the existing “Fatal Encounters” data.

Because most of the data on police homicides is aggregated at state- and county-levels, it is limited in its ability to draw conclusions about micro-level factors affecting deadly police incidents. For example, departments vary in their hiring and training requirements, but these factors can’t be examined at the county- or state-level. For this reason, the NOIHD sought to collect micro-level data about jurisdictions and departments involved in each homicide. This includes things like department-level training and education requirements, municipal debt, or the number of officers killed on duty.

NOIHD data are collected from the U.S. Census, the American Community Survey, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, and state governments, among other sources. Data are collected on all officer-involved homicides, i.e., any deaths involving a police officer, whether intentional or unintentional.

Preliminary Findings

While the preliminary analyses has not been peer-reviewed, there are a few things that have emerged from the data so far:

-Police departments that require officers to more training and higher levels of education tend to have lower levels of police-involved homicides. This makes sense, and was not surprising to researchers.

-Officer-involved homicides are increasing faster in suburban and rural areas, rather than cities.  This was surprising to researchers, and it is unclear why this relationship exists.

-Police homicides were less likely to appear in official sources if the medical examiner or coroner is overseen by the sheriff’s department, rather than other departments. This seems plausible, especially because these statistics are based on medical examiner/coroner opinions, which can vary. It also may suggest that administrative factors have some influence over whether a death is coded as police-related or not. For example, one possibility is that coroners are pressured to report deaths as unrelated to law enforcement in certain jurisdictions, i.e., sheriff’s departments. In fact, an article from USC Dornsife provides some anecdotal evidence to support this: “two coroners in San Joaquin County resigned because they said the sheriff’s department pressured them to report deaths as not being unrelated to law enforcement, when they clearly were.”

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