Better data needed around deaths in police custody

May 26, 2022—Two years after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer—and nearly 10 since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement—researchers are examining whether the ensuing protests and national conversation around racism and inequity have had led to any decline in the use of lethal force by police. As reported in a May 18, 2022 Undark article, the number of people killed nationwide by police has remained stable, but numbers have gone down in certain communities.

Researcher Travis Campbell of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for example, used statistical modeling to compare census tracts that had experienced at least one Black Lives Matter protest between 2014 and 2019 to those that did not. The study found that those with protests experienced a 15% to 20% decrease in police homicides over the study period—around 300 fewer deaths.

Determining the impact of protests on police killings would be easier with better data, according to Justin Feldman, a research associate at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “There have been some efforts at the state legislative level to collect better data on use of force,” he told Undark. “But for whatever reason this has largely gone under the radar of academia and policy.”

A call to action he co-authored last year noted that “the United States does not even have an official nationwide system that documents all deaths in police custody, much less one that provides detailed and timely data to the public,” and offered recommendations including establishing review committees for deaths in police custody and reforming death investigations.

Read the Undark article: Has the BLM Movement Influenced Police Use of Lethal Force?

Learn more

Reforming investigation of police killings in the U.S. (Harvard Chan School news)

More than half of police killings not officially documented on U.S. death certificates (Harvard Chan School release)