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To foster public health, track law enforcement-related deaths, researchers urge

To foster public health, track law enforcement-related deaths, researchers urge
The death of Chicago teen Laquan McDonald after an encounter with police, shown in police video, would have to be reported in a timely manner by public health authorities if a new proposal by Harvard researchers were adopted. (Chicago Police Department)

The death of people at the hands of police officers affects not only the individuals involved but the well-being of the community at large, and a tally of such fatalities can and should be maintained for public health purposes, a group of Harvard University researchers has written.

Wading into the intersection of several highly charged public debates, a group of public health researchers has written that law enforcement-related deaths -- both of police officers and of members of the public -- are not strictly a criminal justice concern.

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The death toll of law enforcement officials is already the subject of careful tracking: As of mid-September, some 26 had perished in gun-related violence in the U.S. this year, of whom 17 were police officers.

By contrast, the researchers said, the number of deaths attributable to law enforcement in the United States is "an official mystery." In an essay published Tuesday by the journal PLoS Medicine, they noted that no single authority tracks them. In a nation where law enforcement organizations are largely state and local, they added, no uniform rules require public notification of such incidents. And in many cases, they wrote, police departments are reluctant to release timely details to the public.

Despite those obstacles, deaths of citizens at the hands of police should be classified as a "notifiable condition," requiring public health agencies to report them promptly to the public, the group wrote.

"It is time that public health agencies exercise their ability to report to the public, in a timely manner, vital data on law-enforcement-related mortality that are critical to the well-being of communities and the body politic itself," wrote the authors -- Nancy Krieger, Jarvis T. Chen, Pamela D. Waterman, Mathew V. Kiang and Justin Feldman -- all of Harvard's Chan School of Public Health.

Adoption of the proposal would make official a death toll compiled by the British newspaper the Guardian, which reports an unofficial tally of 886 people in the United States who have been killed by police so far in 2015. By the paper's accounting, 217 of those killed -- roughly 25% -- were African Americans, or nearly twice their representation (13.2%) in the U.S. population. Some 30% of the black Americans who were killed were thought to be unarmed at the time of their death, the Guardian reported.

Those figures upend FBI estimates of roughly half the number of deaths as those tallied by the newspaper.

"It is startling that we in the U.S. must rely on a U.K. newspaper for systematic, timely counts of the number of persons killed by the police," wrote the authors of the essay in PLoS Medicine. "After all, we have a world-class public health system that reports nationally, in real time, on numerous notifiable diseases and also on deaths occurring in 122 cities with populations [greater than] 100,000."

The proposal comes just a week after a Chicago judge ordered the release of a police video showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot to death as he walked away from several police while carrying a knife. The video, which had been withheld from the public for close to 14 months, has further fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, and with it, a furious debate over law enforcement agencies' seemingly disproportionate targeting of African American crime suspects.

It also comes as Congress is being pressed by physicians, public health officials and researchers to lift longstanding limits on the use of federal funds to conduct research on gun violence. The restrictions, backed by gun rights activists, have stunted gun violence research for nearly two decades, and are included in appropriations bills now before Congress.

The authors of the new essay suggest that stricter, more uniform accounting of such incidents would shed light on patterns that disadvantage certain groups. The essay calls the proposed undertaking "counting for accountability," adding that such public health data has the power to "make lives matter."

"This is a very smart proposal," said Dr. Garen Wintemute, a gun violence researcher at UC Davis who has pressed for the lifting of federal restrictions on new gun research. "Officer-involved shootings are important events that play a multifaceted role in shaping American public life. We can only benefit by knowing more about them."

Follow me on Twitter @LATMelissaHealy and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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