The genetic factor that contributed most to the deaths of 47 Black men in police custody was the color of their skin, not the contents of their red blood cells
The New York Times recently conducted an important investigation revealing the use of sickle cell trait (SCT) as a cover-up for the deaths of Black people at the hands of police while in custody. The newspaper reported finding 47 cases in the past 25 years in which medical examiners, law enforcement officials or defenders of accused officers cited the trait as a cause or major factor in a Black person’s death in custody, with 15 of these deaths occurring since 2015. As hematologists who specialize in both SCT and sickle cell disease, we appreciate the importance of highlighting the disturbing information uncovered by this investigation, including ascriptions of SCT as a causative factor in the death of individuals who have been “roughed up” by the police.
SCT is a benign genetic condition; it is not a disease and is not associated with decreased life expectancy like sickle cell disease. SCT does not cause “sickle cell crisis,” “cardiac hypertrophy,” or “positional asphyxia,” which has been cited in several cases. In the seminal work published by Graham Serjeant, Sickle Cell Disease (third edition),the author notes that in people with SCT, “studies of morbidity have also failed to demonstrate any difference in the age, duration or pattern of hospital admissions in the [people with] SCT compared to normal controls.” SCT is also extremely common; an estimated three million Americans and hundreds of millions of persons worldwide have SCT, and most will live normal life spans with no adverse health events related to SCT.