Introduction: Several high-profile cases in the U.S. have drawn public attention to the use of lethal force by law enforcement (LE), yet research on such fatalities is limited. Using data from a public health surveillance system, this study examined the characteristics and circumstances of these violent deaths to inform prevention.
Methods: All fatalities (N¼812) resulting from use of lethal force by on-duty LE from 2009 to 2012 in 17 U.S. states were examined using National Violent Death Reporting System data. Case narratives were coded for additional incident circumstances.
Results: Victims were majority white (52%) but disproportionately black (32%) with a fatality rate 2.8 times higher among blacks than whites. Most victims were reported to be armed (83%); however, black victims were more likely to be unarmed (14.8%) than white (9.4%) or Hispanic (5.8%) victims. Fatality rates among military veterans/active duty service members were 1.4 times greater than among their civilian counterparts. Four case subtypes were examined based on themes that emerged in incident narratives: about 22% of cases were mental health related; 18% were suspected “suicide by cop” incidents, with white victims more likely than black or Hispanic victims to die in these circumstances; 14% involved intimate partner violence; and about 6% were unintentional deaths due to LE action. Another 53% of cases were unclassified and did not fall into a coded subtype. Regression analyses identified victim and incident characteristics associated with each case subtype and unclassified cases.
Conclusions: Knowledge about circumstances of deaths due to the use of lethal force can inform the development of prevention strategies, improve risk assessment, and modify LE response to increase the safety of communities and officers and prevent fatalities associated with LE intervention.