Reforming investigations of police killings in the U.S.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and other Black people by police, much of the focus has been on reforming law enforcement. But a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researcher says that it’s also important to look at the work of those who investigate such killings—medical examiners and coroners—in order to uncover possible police misconduct.

In a July 14, 2020 interview on WNYC’s “The Takeaway,” Justin Feldman, health and human rights fellow at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, noted that medical examiners and coroners work closely with police and rely on them for evidence. Survey data has shown that about one-fifth of medical examiners have reported facing political pressure to change their findings, Feldman said.

He said that one way to improve investigations of police killings would be to appoint an independent medical examiner “who is less entwined with local law enforcement.”

Feldman’s prior research has shown that only 45% of cases in which someone is killed by police are reported that way on death certificates. But getting accurate counts of police killings is crucial, he said. “These reports serve as an important piece of evidence in holding officers legally and civilly accountable,” he said.

Listen to Justin Feldman on The Takeaway: Do We Need to Reform Death Investigation in the U.S.?