We are actual living scientists and other professionals who support science. We have emotions and feelings—all of which have been on full display in our reactions to the death of George Floyd at the hands of officers in the Minneapolis Police Department this past Memorial Day.

The reactions to the death of George Floyd, in particular, have reignited a dialogue—one that includes the reality that racial inequity in America stems from deeply rooted systemic and institutional racism, which we had the opportunity to learn about earlier this year when the Racial Equity Institute presented to RTI staff.

According to Fatal Encounters, George Floyd was one of 819 individuals killed during interactions with police so far in 2020. Because he was not shot, George Floyd will not be included in The Washington Post’s compilation of law enforcement homicides from officer-involved shootings. That database shows that there have been 429 fatal officer-involved shootings as of May 31, 2020; this number is on pace to match the staggering annual tally of approximately 1,000 such shooting deaths each year.

The Washington Post began to compile its database in 2015 following the death of Michael Brown and in response to the glaring fact that these statistics were not already available. Despite the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000 and its subsequent reauthorizations requiring states to report this information to the Attorney General, there was no national data source with accurate information about the number and circumstances of deaths that occur from law enforcement use of force or that occur while an individual is in the custody of law enforcement.

These data and the ongoing research that assesses the prevalence and impact of bias across our public serving systems are critical to inform evidence-based approaches to reducing fatal encounters with police, identifying and addressing institutional racism, and leading the change to eliminate bias in all its forms.

Video of George Floyd’s death has been circulated widely and the global outcry has been swift—not only because of what was captured in that video, but because of Breonna Taylor, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Samuel DuBose, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and countless others who have died at the hands of police. Yet despite the increased attention to officer-involved deaths in the media and in our communities over the past several years, police-involved shooting deaths have been close to 1,000 annually since 2015.

The information that is now available further provides evidence of the bias experienced by black Americans during interactions with police:

Research into officer-involved shootings has found evidence that states with higher levels of indicators of structural racism—through measures of racial segregation, incarceration, educational attainment, economic disparity, and unemployment—also have higher levels of police violence involving black Americans.

We have a real opportunity to change this—to uphold our mission by turning knowledge into practice. 

For more than 20 years, RTI's Division for Applied Justice Research has been a leader in research on the criminal legal system; disparities in victimization, policing practices, school and youth violence prevention, and criminal legal system involvement; and the associated impact on our communities. The issue of racial inequity has always existed in our research.

Some of AJR’s recent work, conducted in collaboration with centers and divisions across RTI, includes the following:

  • Working to understand how we can support boys and men of color, in particular, who are survivors of violence.
    • With funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Victims of Crime, we are in our 5th year of working with grantees across the country to evaluate their success in developing or expanding access to culturally relevant services for boys and young men of color who have been harmed by violence.
  • Conducting a study designed to inform criminal justice reform and non-harming police responses to violence by examining links between criminal legal system exposure, including individual experiences with arrest and imprisonment as well as community-level effects of living in a heavily incarcerated urban area, and violence against an intimate partner (the most common form of violence in the U.S.).
  • Redesigning the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Arrest-Related Deaths Program.
  • Conducting studies in partnership with law enforcement agencies in North Carolina to assess whether there was evidence of racial bias in traffic stops.
  • Conducting an analysis of 911 calls across neighborhoods in local jurisdictions to assess community trust with law enforcement following high-profile incidents of lethal police use of force.
  • Completing an assessment and baseline study for the Office for Victims of Crime (U.S. Department of Justice) and their Collective Healing Initiative.
    • The initiative helps communities address the needs of those directly impacted by high-profile incidents—such as officer-involved shootings and deaths due to use of force—to reduce tensions, maximize communication, and promote problem solving between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
  • Analyzing data from public opinion polling, media monitoring, and criminal justice agencies to assess the effects of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC).
    • The SJC focuses on nationwide reform efforts to reduce the misuse and overuse of jail detention and eliminate the racial and ethnic disparities in jail populations. 
  • Validating and improving pretrial risk assessment instruments and evaluating pretrial decision-making and reform in jurisdictions nationwide.
    • Arnold Ventures created the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice to reduce the number of people held in jail while they are awaiting trial and the associated collateral consequences on these people and their communities. As with jail populations more generally, pretrial populations often show dramatic racial and ethnic disparities when compared to a community’s general population. We are an evaluation partner for this initiative.

These are just a few examples of our work to examine the policies and practices of law enforcement as well as other components of our criminal legal systems and their impact on our communities. There are still significant gaps in what we know and what evidence-based policies can be implemented to recognize and reduce systemic and institutional racism in our legal system. 

RTI is doing this work; however, we can do more—and we have an obligation to do more. We must develop more projects that center the experiences of people of color in their interactions with police, courts, and correctional facilities and that focus on understanding how racial injustice occurs. We must put more emphasis on disseminating our work, particularly to practitioners, advocates, and affected community members who could use our findings to support anti-racist policies and practices. We must describe how racial inequity shapes the ways that data are generated and collected, is present even when there is silence about race, and can be perpetuated by policies and practices unless they are explicitly engaging an anti-racist approach. We need to keep striving to turn knowledge into practice.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Duren Banks (Senior Vice President, Justice Practice Area ) and Stephanie Hawkins (Vice President, Transformative Research Unit for Equity (TRUE)) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.