As a human being, I deplore the recent shootings and deaths of young black men. They make the notion of equal justice a sham. How and why could so many unarmed black men be killed so easily?
However, as a social systems scientist, I am equally disturbed for other reasons. Given the multitude of factors that are involved in every situation, why do we focus on so few factors and give others that are just as important so little consideration?
The quick and easy answer is that just a few factors are primarily responsible for police shootings and misbehavior. Therefore, if we correct these few, then we will lower substantially the chances of future tragedies. Supposedly, if we'd just do a better job of selecting and training cops, and weeding out those who are racist, then we'd lower police shootings dramatically. Were it all that simple!
Of course police officers are the end links of the chain. They are the ones who decide whether or not to fire or to use force. But enumerable other factors are at play as well.
Yes, drugs and poverty certainly breed crime, but other countries have just as much drugs, poverty, and crime as we do and yet do not have nearly the same rates of police shootings and fatalities. In fact, some countries have even higher rates of crime and yet they don't experience anything near what we do. Guns almost ensure that if there is an altercation between the police and others, then it is more likely to result in deadly consequences.
Systems thinking not only looks at more factors, but it looks at more potential interactions between them, especially those that we are prone to ignore or to downplay. Given the fact American society is so heavily armed -- there are over 300 million guns in private hands -- police officers have little choice but to approach every situation with the ever present and all-too-real possibility that deadly force can and will be used against them and those they are charged with protecting.
Of course racial stereotypes play an important role. We can't do enough to confront and to weed them out. And yes, we need more black policemen everywhere, especially in black communities.
But we are basically kidding ourselves in believing that we can continue to have so many guns in American society and not pay a terrible price. Unfortunately, young black men pay a higher price than young white men. The effects of America's lax gun policies are anything but equal.
Ian I. Mitroff is Professor Emeritus, USC. He is a Senior Research Associate in The Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkeley. He is currently at work on a book in preparation: Dumb, Deranged, and Dangerous: A Brief Guide to Combating Dumb Arguments.