Violent Deaths in Alaska and Nationwide

"Violent Deaths in Alaska and Nationwide" by Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. Alaska Justice Forum 25(4): 2–4 (Winter 2009). An estimated 50,000 people die annually in the United States as a result of violence — including suicide, homicide, injury deaths of undermined intent, unintentional firearms deaths, and legal intervention (such as police shootings). In Alaska, despite a relatively small population, about 250 people annually are victims of violent deaths. The National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), of which the Alaska Violent Death Reporting System (AK VDRS) under the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is a part, works to capture and analyze detailed data about violent deaths with the goal of identifying populations at risk and designing and improving intervention and prevention efforts at all levels. This article describes the NVDRS and AK VDRS and reports findings from two significant surveys on violent deaths: the Alaska Violent Death Reporting System 2003–2005 Summary Report, the first annual publication of AK VDRS, and Deaths from Violence: A Look at 17 States, a survey of 2004–2005 data from NVRDS.

Violence in Alaska and nationwide is one of today’s major public health problems. An estimated 50,000 people die at their own hand or the hands of another each year in the United States. In Alaska, although our population is relatively small, 250 persons die as a result of a violent death annually. The state and national violent death reporting systems work to capture and analyze detailed data about violent deaths with the goal of identifying populations at risk, and designing and improving intervention and prevention efforts at all levels.

In 2008, two significant surveys on violent deaths in the United States were released.

The Alaska Violent Death Reporting System 2003–2005 Summary Report was released by the Alaska Violent Death Reporting System (AK VDRS) under the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and is its first annual publication. It gives a detailed summary of violent deaths in Alaska over the three-year period 2003–2005. (Future reports will look at five years of combined data.)

Deaths from Violence: A Look at 17 States—Data from the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) 2004-2005 is a publication of the State Violent Death Reporting System Workgroup, a part of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), which was instituted in 2002. The report includes data from the 17 states that currently provide information to the national system.

Alaska Violent Death Reporting System

The Alaska Violent Death Reporting System under the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services was established in 2003 with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and works with a team of partners including the Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Bureau of Investigation, Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics, the Office of the Medical Examiner, many local law enforcement agencies, and the AK VDRS advisory group.

Its summary report is a comprehensive, detailed analysis of factors surrounding violent deaths in Alaska. Researchers were able to collect and analyze violent death data in the state including victim characteristics and mode of, location of, and other circumstances surrounding deaths. The report utilizes counts, percentages, and rates as part of its analysis: counts are the basic measure, percentages show distributions, and rates take into account the underlying population. Death rates are expressed as the number of deaths per 100,000 population. Some highlights of the 2003–2005 report follow.

Vital Statistics

  • During this 3-year period, 611 violent deaths occurred in Alaska (Table 1).
  • The majority of violent deaths in 2003–2005 were suicide (69%), followed by homicide (19%), violent death of undetermined intent (7%), unintentional firearms deaths (3%), and legal intervention (1%).
  • The rate of violent death in Alaska was 3 times higher for men than women.
  • Persons aged 15–24 years and 25–34 years had the highest rates of violent death: 59 per 100,000 and 48 per 100,000 population. Twenty-six per cent of violent death victims were aged 15–24.
  • American Indians/Alaska Natives and Blacks had the highest rates of violent death: 65 per 100,000 and 40 per 100,000 population.
  • Among women, American Indian/Alaska Natives had the highest rate of death: 40 per 100,000.
  • Among men, American Indian/Alaska Natives and Blacks had the highest rate of fatal injuries: 90 per 100,000 and 60 per 100,000.
  • Southwest and Northern Alaska had the highest violent death rates: 70 per 1000,000 and 86 per 100,000, including the highest suicide rates (Table 2).
  • The greatest victim count was in the Anchorage/Mat-Su area: 277 deaths.
  • October had the highest number of all violent deaths: 65; while suicide peaked in June and October at 46 victims in each of those months.
  • Leading causes overall of deaths in Alaska in 2001–2005 were cancer (110 deaths per 100,000) and heart disease (96 per 100,000), followed by unintentional injuries (51 per 100,000).

Homicides

  • Intimate partner violence (IPV) was related to 22 percent of the homicides, and jealousy due to a lover’s triangle was involved in 5 percent of the incidents.
  • The highest homicide rate was in Northern Alaska.

Suicides

  • The number of suicides (419) was 21 per 100,000 population. This rate is 3 times higher than that for the lowest of the 17 participating NVDRS states.
  • Among Alaska Natives, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death, with rates in males of 68 per 100,000, and in females of 26 per 100,000.
  • Southwest and Northern Alaska had the highest suicide rates.
  • Alcohol use and drug abuse were reported in 40 percent of all suicides.
Table 1. Suicides, Homicides, and Total Violent Deaths in Alaska by Demographic Characteristics, 2003–2005
Figure 1. Violent Deaths in Alaska, by Type, 2004–2005
Table 2. Violent Deaths in Alaska, by Region, 2003–2005

National Violent Death Reporting System

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fund the 17 states (Table 3) that participate in the NVDRS. The NVDRS began in 2002 with six states participating; in 2003, seven additional states were added, including Alaska. In contrast to other national data collection systems which receive their data from a single source, NVDRS collects information from multiple sources including death certificates, coroner/medical examiner reports, law enforcement investigations, crime labs, and Supplemental Homicide Reports.

Funded and some non-funded states and CDC personnel meet and share information regularly. They have recently been concerned with how data analyzed at the national level often does not reflect the significant state-level heterogeneity of violent death statistics. The detail available from state-level data can provide greater assistance in intervention and prevention policy and programs.

Highlights from 2004–2005 national statistics follow.

Vital Statistics

  • In 2004–2005, there were 408 violent deaths in Alaska (Figure 1).
  • In 2004–2005, the total violent death rate for Alaska and Utah (at about 31 per 100,000) was more than twice the lowest death rate of 12 per 100,000 for New Jersey.
  • Alaska’s violent death rate for state residents was the highest in the nation: 28 deaths per 100,000 population.
  • The next highest violent death rates were found in New Mexico (26 per 100,000), Colorado (22 per 100,000), and Oklahoma (21 per 100,000).

Homicides

  • Nationally, homicide rates were higher for males than females. In most states, the highest homicide death rate was among males 15–24 years old.
  • The death by homicide rate was the highest in Maryland (9 per 100,000), and was more than four times that of Utah, which had the lowest homicide rate of 2 per 100,000.
  • The highest rate for death by homicide was among Black/non-Hispanic males. Homicide death rates in Alaska were highest among Black males (38 per 100,000), followed by Asian/Pacific Islander males (14 per 100,000).
  • Four states varied from the above national figures: in New Mexico, the highest death by homicide rate was found among American Indian/Alaska Native males; in North Carolina among American Indian/Alaska Native and Black/non-Hispanic males; in Rhode Island among Hispanic and Black/non-Hispanic males; and in Utah among Hispanic males.
  • Although more than 50 percent of the homicides in the U.S. resulted from firearm use, in Alaska, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Utah, less than 50 percent of homicides involved firearm use. In these states there was a higher percentage of homicides resulting from the use of a sharp or blunt instrument.
  • Homicides in Alaska resulting from firearm use involved a handgun in 82 percent of incidents.
  • Intimate partner violence was a precipitating factor in 15 percent of homicides nationally, and females were more likely to be victims of homicide involving intimate partner violence.
  • In Alaska and Utah, over 20 percent of homicides involved intimate partner violence as a precipitating factor.

Suicides

  • In the United States, suicides outnumber homicides, but these data are rarely cited. Suicides outnumbered homicides in every state except Maryland and selected California cities.
  • The suicide rate in Alaska of 22 per 100,000 was three times that of New Jersey with the lowest rate of 7 per 100,000.
  • The method of suicide varied from state to state, but firearm use was the most frequent, with males more likely to commit suicide with a firearm, and females by drug overdose (poisoning). In Alaska, 60 percent of suicides involved firearms.
  • On average 28 percent of persons who committed suicide were identified as having problems with a current or former intimate partner.
  • In all states, the rates for suicides were higher for males than females. In Alaska and New Jersey, the suicide rate was highest among males 20–24 years old.

The 17 states involved in the Deaths from Violence report also made several recommendations for funding and implementing the NVDRS nationwide. They recommended increased funding by the CDC and full implementation of the NVDRS in all states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories by 2012, and the development and use of national standards for death investigation and documentation across disciplines. The group also stressed the need to increase awareness of the NVDRS and to facilitate cross-jurisdictional access to aggregate, state, and local level violent death data.

Both of these studies provide valuable information for violence prevention. Both reports, as well as additional data on violent deaths in Alaska and nationally, are available from the AK VDRS site at http://www.hss.state.ak.us/dph/ipems/AKVDRS/data.htm. Further information about violent deaths is available at http://cdc.gov/ncipc/profiles/nvdrs/.

Table 3. Suicides, Homicides, and Total Violent Deaths in 17 States, Annualized Average 2004–2005