Study: Official statistics under-report police killings in New Mexico

One of every four police killings in N.M. not counted in official statistics, researchers say

By: - October 4, 2021 5:02 am

Demonstrators memorialize people who’ve died, taking a knee for a moment of silence during an anti-police violence demonstration in August 2020 in Albuquerque, NM. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

More than one-quarter of the people killed by police in the state were not included in official counts over the last four decades, according to a study released on Thursday, Sept. 30.

NM by decade:

  • 1980s: 0.38
  • 1990s: 0.42
  • 2000s: 0.46
  • 2010s: 0.87

Police killing rate per 100,000 people

Published in the Lancet peer-reviewed medical journal, the study found that 26.4% of people killed by police in New Mexico between 1980 and 2018 were misclassified, their deaths not listed as having involved police in the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). They were not included in yearly totals.

The NVSS is supposed to be the country’s most complete source of vital statistics like births, migrations and deaths. But researchers show that in the count for the entire United States, more than half of all fatal police violence encounters — 55.5% — were missing. From 1980 to 2018, an estimated 30,000 people were killed by police in the U.S., but 17,100 were missing from the statistics.

Factoring in the updated death toll, that means police in the U.S. have killed an average of more than two people every day since 1980.

Race and ethnicity:

Non-Hispanic, Black: 1.02

Hispanic, any race: 1.02

Non-Hispanic, white: 0.82

Police killing rate per 100,000 people in N.M.

The researchers compared the NVSS with open source databases that collect news reports and public records to more carefully track the age, race and gender of the victims. The study builds on well-documented systemic misclassification and undercounting of fatal police violence in U.S. vital statistics.

Even with New Mexico’s undercount, the state is among the top five in the country with the most accurate numbers, the researchers concluded.

The researchers found that the rate of police killings in New Mexico has more than doubled between the 1980s and the 2010s, with a big jump in the most recent decade.

Non-Hispanic Black people and Hispanic people each had a higher per capita police violence mortality rate than white people in the 2010s in New Mexico, according to the study.

Top five most accurate counts by state:

  • Maryland (undercounted by 16.4%)
  • Utah (undercounted by 19.8%)
  • New Mexico (undercounted by 26.4%)
  • Massachusetts (undercounted by 32.5%)
  • Oregon (undercounted by 36.3%)

Researchers noted their statistical methods were unable to accurately analyze other race and ethnicity groups around the U.S., and the broad categories presented in the study can hide large disparities in police violence. They point to previous research showing that Indigenous people are killed by the police at higher rates than anyone other than Black people.

Why did it happen?

They wrote that the under-reporting is related to several factors, including the coroner or medical examiner failing to indicate police involvement in the text fields of the death certificate or errors in how the death certificates are recorded in databases. The part of the death certificate where they must “describe how the injury occurred” is open-ended and comes with no explicit instructions to mention police involvement, they wrote, and some coroners might lack the knowledge or training to fill out the form correctly.

“Physicians are typically responsible for filling out the cause of death section of the death certificate, but state laws require that a medical examiner or coroner do so for homicides or cases where there is suspicion of crime or foul play, including police violence,” the researchers wrote. “However, only some cities have forensic pathologists to act as the coroner, and in small, rural counties, the coroner can be a physician with no forensic training, the sheriff, or a mortician.”

There are also substantial conflicts of interest within the death investigation system that could dissuade certifiers from indicating police involvement, they wrote, including the fact that many medical examiners and coroners work for or are embedded within police departments.


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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.