A medical research team trying to define the number and nature of civilian injuries at the hands of peace officers has deplored the lack of reliable single-source information on that topic.
In a new study, the researchers had hoped to analyze data on law enforcement-related injuries and deaths of civilians for “racial/ethnic and gender patterns” that might “shed light” on better understanding “current community-police relations.” But while they found that officer deaths and assaults are “robustly collected,” statistics on physical injuries to civilians by cops are “significantly limited.”
This has “important policy implications,” writes the team’s leader, Dr. David Chang, an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. While crucial questions are being raised about the equality of use of force in policing, it is “concerning that these questions cannot be convincingly answered with comprehensive analyses of existing data.”
Chang’s group, seeking data from 2003 to 2011, mined databases maintained by a variety of federal agencies, including the FBI, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a national reporting service for hospital admissions.
Due to “multiple incomplete databases,” derived from a largely “voluntary reporting structure” with inconsistent terminology, results were frustratingly fragmentary and did not lend themselves to a “comprehensive understanding” of civilian injuries, Chang laments.
Still, the team drew some general conclusions from what they found to work with, such as:
- While assaults against LEOs “significantly decreased” during the study period, law enforcement-related civilian injuries showed “significant increases.” The team tabulated more than 715,000 nonfatal civilian injuries during those years, with the annual tally jumping from about 59,000 a year in 2003 to more than 96,000 in 2011. “This data would seem to indicate that there are escalating interactions resulting in increasing harm to civilians but not police,” Chang writes.
- Males accounted for 84% of those injuries and blacks for more than 35%, both disproportionately represented in the count compared to their percentage of the population. The age group 15-39 bore the vast majority (72%) of the damage.
- Physical strikes and “manhandling” accounted for two-thirds of the nonfatal injuries; firearms just 1%. Oddly, Hispanics were “more likely to be injured by firearms than struck,” yet were more likely to survive GSWs than were whites and blacks.
- The data suggest that being male is a greater predictor of firearm injury, rather than race or ethnicity.
Chang hopes that these findings, while meager, can “serve to begin the dialogue” about the police-civilian injury issue. “What our study perhaps best demonstrates,” he writes, “is that the data is incomplete, the structure of the data reporting is variable with a heavy reliance on voluntary reporting systems, and there is an inconsistent nomenclature between databases….
“Given the current scrutiny of law enforcement, we should expand [and centralize] the current databases…and heavily incentivize comprehensive reporting with uniform nomenclature.”
Chang concludes the report of his study by quoting FBI Director James Comey: “The first step to understanding what is really going on in our communities…is to gather more and better data related to those we arrest, those we confront for breaking the law and jeopardizing public safety, and those who confront us.
” ‘Data’ seems a dry and boring word but, without it, we cannot understand our world and make it better.”
“Although interesting and necessary to consider, Dr. Chang’s compilation of data must be taken for what it is, not for what it might be” cautions Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute. “Without looking at the totality of the circumstances of each encounter and thoroughly considering the statistical basis for the comparisons reflected here, such as specific population densities, people should be cautious not to come to conclusions that may or not be accurate. Inaccurate, under-informed conclusions may add to an already dangerous level of contentiousness between law enforcement and some in the community and that’s something we all want to avoid.”
Chang’s report, titled “Pattern of law-enforcement related injuries in the United States,” is published by the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. An abstract can be read without charge by clicking here.
Our thanks to Atty. Michael Brave, president of LAAW International Inc., for helping to facilitate this report.