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New white paper updates data on civilian injuries in law enforcement encounters

A remote police camera on a street corner in Chicago.

Incidents of law enforcement-related injury are frequently dismissed, in part because they are anecdotal. Dependable data sources are needed to paint an accurate picture of civilian health outcomes in interactions with police. A new white paper published by researchers at the UIC School of Public Health seeks to quantify and describe civilian injuries in law enforcement encounters from 2016-2022.

SPH’s Law Enforcement Epidemiology Project aims to provide a framework for a comprehensive surveillance system based on existing public health data sources that augment police reports and Bureau of Justice Statistics data.  Their findings indicate that among the 50 to 60 million people in the U.S. who will have contact with law enforcement over a given year, about 250,000 civilian injuries occur, of which more than 80,000 non-fatal injuries required treatment in a hospital.

SPH’s Lee Friedman, PhD, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, and Alfreda Holloway-Beth, PhD ’14, MS ’07, research assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and director of epidemiology at the Cook County Department of Public Health, lead the Law Enforcement Epidemiology Project.

“The program aims to identify at-risk groups and evaluate existing non-lethal techniques used to detain individuals, in order to inform policies to better protect civilians when they interact with law enforcement personnel,” Friedman said. “Improving trust in law enforcement serves to protect communities as well as the safety of officers.”

Data from the white paper specifically addresses civilian injuries in the state of Illinois, broken down by Chicago; Cook County, the state’s largest county; and the rest of the state. The report creates a picture of people most likely to be injured in encounters with law enforcement – namely Black people, males, people between the ages of 15 and 44 and individuals on Medicaid or without health insurance, which are proxies for low income.

While high-profile incidents of civilian injuries and fatalities in law enforcement encounters like the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Laquan McDonald took place in urban contexts, civilian injuries in Illinois are not isolated to major urban centers. The overall injury rate was nearly equivalent across Chicago, suburban Cook County and the rest of Illinois. In fact, injury rates for both Non-Hispanic Black and White people were highest outside of Chicago and Cook County.

Researchers also noted geographic disparities in injury rates. While injury rates have been significantly decreasing in Chicago and suburban Cook County, rates have increased substantially since January 2022 across the remainder of Illinois.

While the reason for the differences in trends is unclear, the findings illustrate another substantial gap in the data. There is an absence of quality information on law enforcement agency characteristics such as diversity of agency personnel, density of officers across jurisdictions, training requirements, community policing programs, policing practices in neighborhoods with more minority or lower income residents, bias in arrest decisions, and arrest rates across communities.

Lee Friedman, PhD  |  Co-director, Law Enforcement Epidemiology Project

The Law Enforcement Epidemiology Project is currently developing a database with this information for agencies in Illinois, but Friedman notes the critical need for a nationwide database.

Regardless of region, minorities and persons living in economically disadvantaged communities experienced the highest incidence rates, but mirroring other published research, incidence rates were 5 to 10 times higher for Black men.

The white paper aims to describe the types of injuries civilians are experiencing. Injuries suffered by civilians followed patterns of known tactics used by law enforcement targeting the head and upper extremities. The most common serious injuries experienced were fractures and open wounds.

The white paper offers new data on injuries induced by canines and conducted energy devices such as TASERs, tracking 656 incidences of injuries with significant variance across municipalities. The authors recommend a review of practices in municipalities where these injuries are most commonly occurring.

Read the white paper