In terms of lives lost, police violence ranks high on the list of US public health issues

Reframing the issue.
Reframing the issue.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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Police violence should be considered a public health issue, according to a new study.

The research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, uses years of life lost (YLL) to gauge the impact of police violence on public health. YLL is a measure employed by public health officials to compare the burden of diseases and injuries across different populations. YLL focuses on the number of years a person could have lived—according to their country’s life expectancy—if he or she hadn’t died prematurely from an identifiable disease or injury.

In their report, researchers from the medical schools of Berkeley, Harvard, and UCLA show what many already know to be true: police violence disproportionately impacts young people, and those young people are disproportionately people of color. The study also notes that police violence has a similar impact on public health as meningitis and maternal deaths. “Yet, many of these conditions receive more attention than police violence, in terms of grant funding, for example,” researchers note.

The researchers analyzed YLL due to police violence by race and age in the US in 2015 and 2016. They gathered data from The Counted, a publicly available dataset compiled by The Guardian that they considered more complete than the National Vital Statistics System. There were 1,146 and 1,092 deaths due to police violence in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Just over half of the deaths were among white Americans, 26% were among blacks and 17% were among Hispanics.

The average death rate due to police violence was 3.5 per million. Black Americans had a death rate of 7.2 per million, well above the rates for Hispanics and whites, at 3.3 and 2.9 per million, respectively. In terms of YLL, police violence accounted for 57,375 and 54,754 in 2015 and 2016, respectively. People of color make up 39% of the US population, but 52% of all YLL in those two years.

The researchers hope that by framing police violence as a public health issue, and comparing its impact to broadly sympathetic issues like meningitis and maternal mortality, it will draw more of a focus on prevention efforts.