A new study quantifies the impact of police violence in terms of years of life lost. I don't think this is the right approach.
54,754 years. That is the total years of life lost due to police violence in the United States in 2016, according to this article appearing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
But what does this really mean, why is the data being presented in this way, and how do we interpret these findings?
Let’s start with the basics. When an individual dies, we could count that, simply, as a death. But this poses a problem for policymakers. If we only focus on raw counts of deaths, we find ourselves directing our resources to the oldest individuals, since, well, they die more often. Years of life lost addresses this issue by comparing an individual’s age at death to their predicted lifespan. Yes, this leads to weird moral quandries like is it better to save 20 years of one person’s life or 10 years of 2 people’s lives, but putting that aside, the metric remains a standard by which public health issues can be addressed.
Ok. There were 1,092 deaths due to interactions with police in 2016 in the US. On average, an individual killed by police loses about 50 years of life – the median age of death was 35. We can break down that impact farther. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that there were substantial differences by race on multiple metrics. Black individuals make up 12.5% of the US population but made up 25.6 percent of the police fatalities. Black people were younger too, meaning they accounted for an even greater percentage of years of life lost.
The discrepancy by race gets a bit wider if we look simply at people of color compared to white people. In 2016, the majority of years of life lost occurred among people of color, despite white individuals making up 61.5% of the population.
But what does 55,000 life years mean? Let’s give some context here. That number is similar to the years of life lost from maternal deaths, and substantially greater than the years of life lost due to unintentional firearm injuries.
But in the big picture, it’s nothing. If I add suicide and cancer to the graph, police violence doesn’t even register.
So why focus on this metric? I think the idea here is to use the language of public health to generate interest in the issue. It allows us to make arguments like – well, if you really care about maternal mortality than you should also care about police violence.
I do not think this is the right approach. Police violence is not a public health issue – at least not a major one. The issue is one of justice, plain and simple. When police officers abuse their power and face no consequences - and we have ample evidence that this occurs - it rends the social contract of which we are all a part. Even one unnecessary death from police violence is too many, regardless if it registers on some epidemiological scale. Justice should be blind and not beholden to wonky statistics but to a much simpler metric – what is right and what is wrong. I’m not sure tallying years like this helps the cause.