Why police killings like George Floyd are labeled ‘accidents’, according to a forensic pathologist

The US police shooting crisis has been increasingly documented by advocates and journalists, with data now indicating that officers are fatally shooting more than three people on average every day.

Since the killing of George Floyd four years ago, increasing attention has been focused on a more hidden epidemic of police violence: deaths at the hands of officers who did not use weapons. An associated press research found that in March more than 1,000 people died was in US police custody from 2012 to 2021 after officers used “less lethal” tactics, including pinning victims face down and stunning victims with Tasers. In hundreds of these cases, medical officials deemed the deaths “accidental” or “natural” despite the officers’ use of force.

Dr. Former Washington DC Chief Medical Examiner Roger A Mitchell Jr. has become a leading voice in the effort to uncover the true extent of these fatalities. In his book Death in custody Published last year, he and co-author Jay Aronson, founder of Carnegie Mellon’s center for human rights scholarship, explain the nation’s systematic failure to track deaths caused by police and correctional officers. The book examines the bias in death investigations and examines how coroners and medical examiners have conducted autopsies that minimized the cause of death or the role of the police erasedand essentially blamed the victims for their own deaths.

Mitchell has worked with the victims’ families and testified Congress and at a high level criminal trials and reviewed “accidental” deaths that he certain should have been labeled as ‘murders’ by the police. Mitchell is now the chief outpatient physician at Howard University and spoke to The Guardian about the lack of progress since Floyd’s killing and his proposed solutions.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How do you reflect on what has happened in the four years since George Floyd’s murder?

So many more people have died since then and few people know their names or even know that they have died. We don’t know how many George Floyds there have been. We view these deaths as individual caricatures and terrible events rather than as a system. There is an epidemiology that continues with deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers and in jails or prisons where the system is responsible for providing adequate health care and protection from suicide. So I think about all these additional cases over the last four years, and how we don’t have a robust, complete, and comprehensive data collection system for deaths in custody. The federal Deaths in Custody Reporting Act — intended to track deaths from the pre-arrest phase through arrest, transportation, booking, jail time and long-term incarceration — is not currently in effect. operational in the sense that we actually make no profit from it accurate data.

Why is this lack of data such a problem? What is the impact of our inability to do this follow these cases?

Data on mortality rates, or the way people die, has always been used as leverage for policy and prevention programs. We focus so much on cancer because cancer causes so many deaths. The same goes for heart disease and motor vehicle collisions. When it comes to deaths in custody, we don’t pay much attention, do much research, or create many public health and law enforcement policies to reduce the burden of illness or injury on those who come into contact with law enforcement. But that’s what it takes.

There is such a stigma when it comes to the prison system. Relatives of loved ones who have died in custody often do not know where to turn. And honestly, I don’t think people care. There have always been advocates, community members and families who have cared, and now journalists are really taking up the mantle. But there has been no real movement to hold the system accountable for capturing the data. It’s a function of the fact that those who are marginalized in this country are suffering the most, and we don’t have that level of visibility so that we can create prevention.

How can medical researchers possibly cloud our understanding of the magnitude of these deaths?

The medico-legal investigation of death includes medical examiners, coroners (who generally do not have to be doctors), and sheriff-coroners (coroners who are). part of the law enforcement agency they may be investigating). They are critical because they confirm death, and the death certificate should be a fundamental truth about the burden of illness or injury within society. Death certificates tell us about the health and well-being of our community. But this system is completely incoherent. Some are county-based systems, others are state-based. Funding varies between systems. There is a shortage of forensic pathologists who can provide the necessary expertise for autopsies. There is no federal oversight. So there is a lack of uniformity and consistency in the way cases are decided.

There are five modes of death: murder, suicide, accident, natural and undetermined. Usually it’s pretty obvious. If someone is shot, it is murder. If there is a fight between two men in the street and one of them dies, it is called murder. But there is a shift in philosophy when it comes to an altercation between law enforcement officers and civilians, with some calling these instances “accidents,” “undetermined,” or even “natural.”

What are some of the most common types of police killings associated with mislabeled accidents?

Often we see a fight between an officer and a civilian, and it leads to a position where the person is lying face down. There could be, and may be, an officer’s knees or body on the individual’s back expressing their inability to breathe. The officers’ actions caused death – whether it was asphyxiation, which means a true inability to breathe, or cardiac death, which means the heart is unable to pump and get oxygen. The individual may also have had drugs in their system, and in those circumstances there are some forensic pathologists who would call it an accident.

There is also a culture and philosophy in forensic medicine that states that deaths from police-related altercations must show “intent” for it to be called a homicide. But most murders do not necessarily involve intent. If a death is due to the actions of another person, it is medical a murder.

Dr. Roger Mitchell, former DC principal investigator and now chief ambulatory care physician at Howard University. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Roger Mitchell

How do these misclassifications impact grieving families as they search for answers and responsibility?

Families are often left without clear communication about what was found in the autopsies, leading to a lot of frustration and anxiety. If there is an altercation with law enforcement, and without that altercation that person would have walked away and been fine and the case is called an accident and not a murder, it creates distrust of the system. Please note that murder does not equal murder. The legal system decides whether the violence was justified. But if someone dies as a result of the violence, something other than calling it murder means downplaying the importance of the truth. It has a huge impact, not only on the families, but on the larger community and society, when the cases are not named as they should be from a medical point of view.

California recently banned the use of “excited delirium” (a discredited cause of death that has long been cited to justify the sudden deaths of black men stopped by police). What about the thousands of excited delirium cases that have occurred since the 1990s? Cases where families were told, “Sorry, your loved one was high on drugs and suddenly collapsed.” Who is going to look at these cases when we know that excited delirium will not be used as a cause of death? We need to go back and correct the data and get closure for families.

How can we actually better track these deaths at the hands of police?

We have a real need for a public health approach. We can’t just rely on the Justice Department. I have proposed putting a check box on the US standard death certificate stating whether it was a death in custody. The death certificate tells us so much: age, gender, race, geography, employment. There is so much we can learn from death certificates. If it says whether it was an arrest or someone who was in custody, that is not the answer to preventing these deaths. But it will be the beginning of a true understanding of the events and pace of these incidents across our country. I really want people to think of this as a system of deaths that we need to understand, that we need to study, and that we need to control and prevent.