An estimated 51,000 people in the United States go to the emergency room each year for injuries they sustain during encounters with law enforcement, a new study suggests. The vast majority of those injuries are minor.
The researchers found that over the seven-year period from 2006 to 2012, there were about 356,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms for law-enforcement-related injuries throughout the country. Of these cases, about 1,200 people died (0.3 percent of the total), either when they were in the emergency room or after they were admitted to the hospital, according to the findings, published today (April 19) in the journal JAMA Surgery.
The study suggests that nonfatal injuries are much more pervasive than law-enforcement-associated deaths, said lead study author Dr. Elinore Kaufman, a surgical resident at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.
The new study comes after a series of high-profile deaths of civilians following contact with police officers. These deaths have brought increased media attention to the issue of police-involved deaths and have led to more questions from the public about the number of such fatalities that occur in the country each year.
But so far, data on the deaths and injuries from these interactions has been incomplete, the study authors wrote.
To find out more about these law-enforcement-related injuries and deaths, the researchers analyzed data from a government database called the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample, which includes a nationally representative sample of emergency room visits in the U.S. They looked at injuries that were known to be caused by an interaction with law enforcement and were coded that way in the database.
The analysis showed that the number of hospital emergency room visits for law-enforcement-related injuries was stable between 2006 and 2012; it did not increase over time.
The most common cause of injuries was “being struck by or against,” which was responsible for 77 percent of the visits to emergency rooms in this category.
This could mean that people were struck by a hand, foot or object, or that they were struck against a wall, car or the ground, Kaufman told Live Science. She noted that the data used in the analysis relies on the numerical codes that hospitals use for billing purposes, and does not provide all of the details people might like to know about each injury.
Gunshot or stab wounds accounted for about 7 percent of all law-enforcement-linked injuries, according to the findings.
The researchers also found that emergency room visits linked with law enforcement were more common in the South and the West, with each of these regions accounting for about one-third of all visits. Together, the Northeast and Midwest accounted for the remaining third.
Most of the injured patients were young men: More than 80 percent were male, and the average age of the injured person was 32, the researchers found. Mental illness was common, affecting 20 percent of cases, Kaufman said.
She noted that the study’s estimate of 51,000 emergency room visits per year does not include deaths that occur at crime scenes or people who are injured but do not seek medical attention.
Another limitation of the study is that the database that the researchers used did not include information on patients’ race or ethnicity, nor did it provide additional details on geographic location beyond regional information. These were two important components of recent headline-making cases involving police-related injuries and deaths, so more research is needed to incorporate those elements, Kaufman said.
“There is a lot more to learn about the factors that can contribute to or mitigate these injuries,” Kaufman said.