US police killed or injured 55,400 people during "legal" stops, searches and arrests in 2012, according to a study in Injury Prevention, one of Britain's peer-reviewed BMJ medical journals. Researchers also found that police disproportionately targeted black people, Native Americans and Latinos for stops and arrests and, though the use of deadly or debilitating force did not vary by ethnicity, the increased contact with police created risks for members of those minorities.
"This is nowhere near a new problem or a new public health problem," said Ted Miller, a scientist at Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Maryland who conceived "Perils of Police Action: A Cautionary Tale From US Data Sets." "Police use of excessive force without due process of law has been with us forever as a problem, and since the Civil War it's been viewed particularly as a problem for the black community."
Miller and US- and Australia-based colleagues examined data from medical and legal sources and tallies of police killings conducted by The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers. For the purposes of the study, "legal interventions" are defined as "arrests, stop-and-search incidents on the street and traffic stops involving a search." One of the more challenging aspects of the research, Miller said, is how little official documentation of police violence can be found in law enforcement databases and how often police involvement in injuries is left out of medical records.
"The surprise that had dropped on all of us around the time of starting this was that the data sets that I've worked with since I came into the field of injury, from the vital statistics on the number of people killed in the United States and the intent of those deaths, that the coroners and medical examiners were failing to code police involvement in almost half of the police-involved deaths," Miller said. "And there are two separate reporting systems that the police are supposed to report police-involved deaths to – and both of those had even worse underreporting."
"When you correct those firearm accounts, what you find is that one in every 13 people who died because someone else fired a firearm the police pulled the trigger," he added. "A police officer pulled the trigger. And that's scary."