Police Violence and Public Health: What We Know

What does it mean to understand police violence from a public health lens?

It starts with understanding how police behaviors can result in harm and who is most affected.

In the Cure Violence podcast link below, I introduce what I term adverse police exposures, or a conceptual framework to understand how harmful police behaviors can impact health and public safety. I then explore ways public health leaders, providers, clinicians, advocates, community activists, and students can advance our understanding and commitment to addressing adverse police exposures as important threats to public health and safety.

Cure Violence Podcast: Police Violence Through a Public Health Lens

For more resources on the topics and data discussed in the podcast, see the frequently asked questions below.

Have professional medical associations addressed police violence in the past?

Yes. Here are the American Public Health Association’s 1998 Impact of Police Violence on Public Health policy statement, the National Association of City and County Health Officials’ 2015 policy statement on Public Health, Racism, and Police Violence, the American Academy of Family Practice’s 2015 resolution declaring Discriminatory Policing is a Public Health Concern, and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 Initiative to Confront Violence in Children’s Lives.

Was Stop-and-Frisk only employed in NYC?

No. While the phrase “stop-and-frisk” is derived from a tactic utilized by New York police departments (and was ruled unconstitutional in 2013) similar tactics have been and are being used in many other cities. For example, in 2015 and 2016, the Department of Justice released scathing reports detailing similar discriminatory tactics utilized by both the Ferguson and Baltimore Police Department. Notably, these tactics are also ineffective, as noted here,

What does “ban-the-box” mean?

This is a national campaign to provide a fair opportunity for employment to those who are formerly incarcerated. In 2015, President Obama took an important step to do this for federal workers.

What do pediatricians know about how stress affects health?

While some stress can be good, too much stress can be toxic, particularly to the developing brain and body. For babies and young children aged 0-5, exposure to toxic levels of stress can have longstanding impacts on adult health. Having an incarcerated parent or caregiver is considered an adverse childhood experience that can contribute to toxic stress.

What’s problematic about police in schools?

For some children, their police contact is structured by their school’s disciplinary policies. According to the Department of Education, across public schools nationally, students of color are more likely to encounter police in this way. Specifically, black male and female students are disproportionately more likely to be referred to law enforcement and have school-related arrests, than all other students. These early exposures criminalize children of color in places where they should be safe to explore, learn, and grow and can contribute to barriers to higher education, employment, and successful participation in community.

What can doctors and health departments do?

We can collect data that captures the magnitude of police violence by counting injuries, morbidities, and deaths related to police encounters. Here is one way to start, authored by Nancy Krieger, a public health champion for this work, and colleagues at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

We can support community organizations that are seeking to redefine what safety means to communities of color. Here, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights’ Justice Teams stand out as incredible leaders for their work to deploy community-led crisis response networks in California. Here is a list of other organizations working at the intersections of police accountability and racial justice from Funders For Justice, the member organizations representing The Movement for Black Lives, and Blackout for Human Rights, a collective of filmmakers, artists, activists, musicians, lawyers, tastemakers, religious leaders, and concerned citizens lifting the voices of the movement through media engagement.

And we can mobilize communities to go to the polls this November and speak up for public safety and health. Confused on the issues? Check out Campaign Zero, which lists comprehensive federal, state, and local policy agendas and a side-by-side comparison of where each presidential candidate stands on these important issues.

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