Police have a racist predisposition to shoot black males – true or false? Do we have any evidence to know the extent to which this statement has validity? Sadly enough, we do not, contends Michael Wines, whose recent column in the New York Times noted that statistics which could support or refute the contention that police shootings unfairly target blacks “do not exist. And because of that, the current national debate over the role of race in police killings is being conducted more or less in a vacuum.”
While not a criminologist, I did attempt to search for data on the prevalence of shootings, including homicides, by police in the United States. Academic and government statistics provide little insight. More than 20 years ago, the federal Office of Justice Programs noted the absence of data on police use of deadly force and called for a national reporting system. Such a system never evolved; sound data about shootings by the police does not seem to exist.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported, as did Wines, on one of the few credible studies of the topic. Interestingly, in Wines’ view, the St. Louis study revealed something counterintuitive: that black police officers shared participation, in proportion to their numbers in the department, in the homicides of black male suspects. Nothing to change the assumption that racism plays a role, but the study results suggest that simple-minded thinking about black and white might not sufficiently address a serious social problem, which Wines labels “the plague of shootings of black men by white police officers.”
Please note that I do not offer an opinion about the Ferguson situation. The shooting of an unarmed teenager seems immoral; no conclusive evidence has yet emerged to justify the use of lethal force and the death of Michael Brown. We will see what develops.
However, the attempt to discuss, understand, and address that shooting in Ferguson raises a larger concern: the need to shape our thinking and make decisions about social issues and social programs based on sound information, rather than acting in a vacuum where myths and inaccuracies can all too easily lead us down the wrong path.
That’s why, at Wilder Research, we engage in work that can drive thinking, resources, and policies in the most productive and humane direction. For example:
- That’s why we work in the field of education, partnering with others in Generation Next and the Promise Neighborhoods, for example, to identify empirically what our children throughout the community need and what works and doesn’t work for improving their academic success. Progress requires initially building upon what we know with confidence, then exploring different approaches, experimenting to see what works, and continuing to build on our successes.
- That’s why we partnered with several foundations and the State of Minnesota to determine the value of supportive housing. Anecdotes had previously implied how it worked; but with a systematic study, we could illuminate the strengths and limitations of supportive housing. We could provide guidance and a baseline for improvement.
- That’s why we partnered with the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging to study informal caregivers in the Twin Cities (family members, friends, neighbors who care for aging people) and learn the ways in which those caregivers might be better served through available resources.
A new and exciting study for the state of Minnesota will examine long-term supports and services for older adults, people with disabilities, adults with long-term mental health needs, and children with long-term mental health needs in all 87 counties of the state, in order to identify gaps that need remedying. Policymakers will have the opportunity to allocate resources best aligned with needs.
Our communities need information, insight, and wisdom – of practical significance, to make the best possible choices (even if sometimes difficult and wrenching) about how to shape policies and allocate resources. But also at a higher level, we need sound understanding, based in facts rather than myths, prejudices, and stereotypes, to live out our values and achieve our aspirations for an optimal and equitable quality of life for all people.