The CDC, Like the FBI, Dramatically Undercounts Deaths at Hands of Police

Police tapeOlivier Le Queinec / DreamstimeThe media do a better job at keeping track of who the government kills than the government does. Go figure.

By “who the government kills,” I specifically mean who the police kill. A new study released this week shows that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which tracks stats on causes of death in the National Vital Statistics System, seriously undercounts how many people in the United States are killed during encounters with police.

The report was put together by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, who compared the CDC’s numbers for 2015 to The Guardian‘s database of people killed in police encounters in the United States.

Not only did the CDC undercount the deaths, but it did so dramatically, catching only half of them. The researchers counted 1,166 fatalities that year. The Guardian‘s database caught 1,086 of them. The CDC registered only 643.

Justin Feldman, lead author of the study, explained to Reuters that the CDC relies on diagnosis codes in state death certificates that indicate “legal intervention” was involved in the death. But many medical examiners and coroners fail to mention police involvement on these documents.

This seems to happen most frequently with deaths that don’t involve guns (such as a person dying after getting Tasered) and with deaths in less wealthy counties. As just one example, none of the 30 people killed by police in Oklahoma in 2015 were included in the CDC count.

The CDC isn’t the only agency doing a bad job of tracking these deaths. In fact, the Guardian project—and another by The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer—were devised because the FBI’s efforts are so insufficient.

The FBI does have a program to track police killings, but participation is voluntary and many law enforcement agencies do not participate. In some cases, entire states don’t participate. So the FBI, tasked with tracking national statistics on violence and crime, does not have good numbers. They’ve got amazing stats on how many police are themselves killed or assaulted

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