How many people have been killed in the United States by law enforcers? That question is actually more complicated than it appears because there is a lot of questionable data being used to establish that number:
Over half of all police killings in 2015 were wrongly classified as not having been the result of interactions with officers, a new Harvard study based on Guardian data has found.
The finding is just the latest to show government databases seriously undercounting the number of people killed by police.
“Right now the data quality is bad and unacceptable,” said lead researcher Justin Feldman. “To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances.”
Feldman used data from the Guardian’s 2015 investigation into police killings, The Counted, and compared it with data from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). That dataset, which is kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was found to have misclassified 55.2% of all police killings, with the errors occurring disproportionately in low-income jurisdictions.
This revelation isn’t new nor should it be surprising. Statistics is often an exercise in creating the conclusion and fitting the data to that conclusion. If, for example, the government wanted to make its law enforcers appear to be less lethal, it could massage the number of people killed by its officers by coming up with a creative definition of law enforcement interaction. And government agencies can’t even claim a monopoly on this practice. It seems that most individuals and organizations use statistics to prove an already established conclusion instead of using statistics to establish a conclusion.
Now we have at least two sets of statistics on the number of people killed by law enforcers. Which set of numbers is correct? Who knows. The government has an obvious motivation to massage the numbers so it appears that fewer people are killed by law enforcers but Feldman may be motivated to massage the numbers so it appears that more people are killed by law enforcers. Most people will likely pick the set that proves their conclusion and call it a day. And do you know what? I can’t blame somebody for choosing that strategy because realistically both sets of statistics are probably misleading in some manner.