The Health Department was able to identify six of the 13 bystander deaths only through media reports. Dr. Bassett said all of the deaths should have been classified as police-related from the start. “The definition was too narrow and didn’t fully capture the mortality impact of encounters with police,” she said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio won office in 2013 promising to rein in the city’s Police Department, a stance that was not well received by officers. Early in his term, hundreds of officers turned their backs on him at two police funerals. After that, the mayor became among the Police Department’s loudest defenders. His administration began using a more expansive interpretation of a law known as 50-A, blocking the release of disciplinary records that had long been made available. On his watch, the police officer who placed Eric Garner in the chokehold that led to his death remained on the force for five years, even collecting overtime pay
For years, Dr. Bassett’s team meticulously collected data on police-involved deaths, but she chose not to tell the mayor or City Hall. When I asked her why, she said, “I thought they would tell us to stop.”
Instead of from the mayor, Dr. Bassett found help from an unlikely source: the police commissioner, James O’Neill.
Dr. Bassett said she met with the commissioner in September 2017 at One Police Plaza, the department’s hulking concrete headquarters near the Brooklyn Bridge. Dr. Bassett said Police Commissioner Shea, then a deputy commissioner, was there, as well as Dr. Sampson.
Dr. Bassett and her team showed them the data, telling them she had determined her agency was underreporting police-related deaths. To her surprise, Mr. O’Neill didn’t question the findings. “You should have come to us,” Dr. Bassett recalls the commissioner saying. He asked to be a part of the review. Using data provided by the Police Department, the Health Department identified about 10 more deaths during the same six-year period, Dr. Bassett said. In a phone interview, Mr. O’Neill said the collaboration with Dr. Bassett was part of a larger effort to increase transparency about the Police Department he led. “We worked well together,” he said.
But by January of last year, the Police Department had stopped sharing the data with the Health Department. In a phone call this week, police officials said they already release much of the information to the public in their annual use-of-force reports.