Who, what, where, when and why? COPH professor works to gain clearer picture of Florida’s violent deaths

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every hour seven people in this country die a violent death.

To track those deaths, the CDC devised the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), a data collection system that Florida recently joined after receiving a three-year, multimillion dollar grant provided by the CDC to the state.

By joining the NVRDS, Florida will expand its knowledge of violent deaths, defined as homicides, suicides, unintentional firearm deaths, undetermined deaths and deaths due to legal intervention (e.g., deaths inflicted by the police or other law enforcement agents while making arrests, maintaining order, etc.).

Dr. Karen Liller, a USF College of Public Health (COPH) professor and a child and adolescent injury prevention expert, is the principal investigator overseeing Florida’s collection of data. Investigators will take information from the medical examiner’s report, death certificate and law enforcement records, the latter of which will help researchers better understand the “why” of violent deaths, says Liller.

“From law enforcement, we can learn more about the weapon used or even if one was used, if multiple deaths occurred in one setting and if there were any relationships between the parties involved,” she explained. “If you just use one data set, you may know John Doe died and Jane Doe died. But from the police report you may be able to find out that John and Jane were married and John shot Jane before taking his own life. The law enforcement data can help give us the narrative of the story. We can better learn the why, which builds upon the who, what, when and where.”

Memorial to a victim of Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings. Google Images

Liller is working on the project with other USF colleagues, including Dr. Nicholas Thomas, a postdoctoral scholar, as well as contracted “abstractors” John Keyser and Mosadoluwa Afolabi, who are trained to input data. Besides connecting dots and giving a clearer picture of violent deaths and its circumstances, Liller hopes the project will help researchers identify emerging trends.

“Some states have used the NVDRS to do some great public health outreach,” said Liller. “For example, there are states that have expanded their knowledge of suicide, leading to outreach with particularly vulnerable populations.”

To protect privacy, all data from the records are sent across a secure CDC surveillance network.  Even the USF abstractors working with the information must work in locked and windowless offices.

Because Florida is such a large and populous state, right now Liller and her colleagues are only examining data taken from those counties in which 40 to 50 percent of Florida’s violent deaths occur. Those include Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange and others.

And while the grant is in its infancy, Liller hopes it will be extended for many years to come, similar to other surveillance projects already being conducted in the college.  “The more we know, the more we can work with communities to develop effective prevention strategies.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health

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