‘Red flags' show who is most at risk of being shot in Seattle

There are “risk markers” that can indicate who in Seattle will likely be injured by a gun from suicide, unintentionally being shot, fired upon by police, or as a result of a crime.

“When we looked at the results for the first time, we didn’t expect to see such extreme results in the police intervention group,” said University of Washington researcher Brianna Mills. “I hope this starts more conversations among police and healthcare personnel about the interactions they may have with someone that should be interpreted as red flags, as signs that they need help.”

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"Police intervention," Mills explains, is basically anytime a person is injured by a firearm used by police. The CDC calls this group "legal intervention" and defines it as "injuries inflicted by the police or other law-enforcing agents, including military on duty, in the course of arresting or attempting to arrest lawbreakers, suppressing disturbances, maintaining order, and other legal actions."

“I called the results for the police intervention group ‘extreme’ because that group really stood out from the other study groups we looked at,” Mills said. “Odds ratios of 4 or 5 aren’t that unusual, especially in injury epidemiology, but an odds ratio of 7, 11, or 22 (meaning that people in the police intervention group were 22 times more likely to have a conduct disorder diagnosis than people in the control group) is very uncommon.”

Studying Seattle gun injuries

Mills is now a research scientist at the Harborview Injury & Prevention Research Center. She was among researchers with the University of Washington's School of Public Health who looked at data from the state Department of Health and the Washington State Patrol. They studied 763 people injured or killed by a gun between 2010 and 2014 and compared that data to people injured in car accidents.

The study concluded that "an individual's history of substance use, mental disorder and arrest can indicate an elevated risk of getting shot." It was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this month. Mills stresses that the results have more to do with "red flags" and should not be interpreted that people with a history of arrest, mental disorders, or substance abuse will get shot. Rather, it's meant to indicate risk factors, such as having "several encounters with institutions prior to the event."

The study grouped firearm injuries around Seattle into four main categories: police intervention; unintentional; suicide related; and crime related. Then they looked at arrest histories, mental health histories, and issues with substance abuse.

According to UW:

Mills found that individuals in the police intervention injuries group had arrest histories similar to those with crime-related injuries, but also had hospitalization histories similar to those with suicide-related injuries.

Compared to the control group, individuals in this group were:

  • Seven times more likely to have prior felony arrests
  • Four times more likely to have a diagnosis involving alcohol use
  • 11 times more likely to have a diagnosis related to cannabis abuse
  • Seven times more likely to have clinical depression, anxiety, or psychosis
  • 22 times more likely to have a conduct disorder