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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Adding to the list of things we don't know about crime and justice in America

Over the weekend, The Washington Post published an analysis of every shooting death at the hands of a police officer since the start of the year. The Post found that the number of officer-involved shooting deaths is approaching 400 nationwide for the year, a number that's about twice as high as what you'd expect if you believe the existing statistics on deaths caused by police officers (most people don't). 

The Post has plenty of details within the numbers worth checking out, but still the most surprising part of this analysis is that it had to be done at all. Even with this analysis now available, it's clear that the number of things we don't know about violence involving police officers far outnumbers the things we do know. 

The Post analysis, for example, only includes shooting deaths by police officers. Left out are other deaths while in police custody. Freddy Gray (who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody in Baltimore)  and Eric Garner (who died after a police choke-hold in New York City) don't show up in these numbers. 

And it leaves open the question of all other types of violence that can occur in police encounters. I wrote about this gap in knowledge back in August

The federal government is required to try to collect data from local law enforcement agencies on the use of excessive force, but it doesn't do a very good job of it. There's no widely accepted definition of what constitutes excessive force, and most local agencies investigate themselves when it comes to citizen complaints. And there's evidence that many instances of the use of force by police go unreported by citizens. In the BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] survey cited above, less than 14 percent of those who said they were subject to improper force by police reported the incident to the department afterward.

Today, The Atlantic expands the list of things we do not know by looking at the missing statistics for what happens to people after arrest. The federal government keeps track of how many people are in prison, for sure. But it provides very little information on what happens inside those prisons. We don't know how many prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement. We don't know how many experience violent assault, other than sexual assaults, which have to be tracked by law. 

The Atlantic writes that we also don't know a lot about the deals from prosecutors that may send some offenders to jail, while letting others walk free. Prosecutors have huge leeway in offering plea deals to alleged criminals. These deals help ease the burden on an already overwhelmed judicial system. But how those deals get made is not usually disclosed. 

The Atlantic cites one anecdote of what we may learn from analyzing these offers: 

In 2011, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance invited the Vera Institute to examine his office’s internal records for evidence of racial disparities. The institute’s final report found that disparities plagued every step of the process. Among its findings: Black and Hispanic defendants were more likely to be offered plea deals on misdemeanors that included imprisonment than white and Asian defendants.

There are plenty of factors that could explain why these disparities exist. But it's hard to get into the explanations when you don't even have the basic facts established for the system as a whole. 

That's the problem with our lack of statistics involving policing or imprisonment. When you don't know what you don't know, it's hard to figure out where there might be room for improvement. So the debate over reform is based largely on ignorance - for any side. Better statistics would at least help with that. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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