Why Police Brutality Is a Public Health Issue

Beyond the statistics, though, we need to gather raw data on the lived experiences of police brutality’s victims—firsthand and secondhand—if we want to craft solutions that actually help them. “That data is not just numbers…I think we have to prioritize people’s stories,” Alang says. “Because if we have policy-making around police brutality or defunding the police, etc.. [and] those policies aren’t grounded in the experiences of people that are more likely to experience police brutality, then it’s not really going to make a difference,” she explains. “Policies often reflect the decision and experiences of the people who make them, and so we have to include communities that are disproportionately impacted in both the research and policy making around police brutality.”

We need more research to understand at a granular level the ripple-out effects on the families, friends, and communities that lose someone to police violence. “We don’t even know enough about how people cope and deal with [losing a loved one to police violence],” Alang explains. She cites the example of Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old woman who was shot and killed by a white police officer through the bedroom window of her Texas home in October 2019. (The officer, who was responding to a call from a neighbor citing concern for Atatiana’s open door, was indicted for murder in December.) Less than a month later, Atatiana’s 58-year-old father, Marquis, died of a heart attack. In January of this year, Atatiana’s mother Yolanda Carr died from congestive heart failure. “I’d like to know how her parents dealt with [their] loss and grief,” Alang says. “What policies could have made it easier for them? Why did they die? What kinds of stressors did they have from losing their daughter to police brutality?”

While studying the issue with the depth it deserves is essential, we don’t need to wait for more data to come in to do something about it. “I don’t think any of us who study this are saying we need more research before we act,” Feldman explains. “It’s like COVID-19. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but with COVID we’re saying we need to act now because it’s such an emergency, even if we don’t understand the dynamic of the disease. Same thing with police violence. We need urgent action [and] we also need more research.”

What that urgent (and longer term) action might look like in terms of policy and reform is another discussion that we won’t get deep into here. But for a sampling of the kinds of measures broadly supported by public health experts, we can look to the the APHA position paper’s recommendations for five evidence-based strategies to be implemented at all levels of law enforcement:

(1) eliminate policies and practices that facilitate disproportionate violence against specific populations (including laws criminalizing these populations), (2) institute robust law enforcement accountability measures, (3) increase investment in promoting racial and economic equity to address social determinants of health, (4) implement community-based alternatives to addressing harms and preventing trauma, and (5) work with public health officials to comprehensively document law enforcement contact, violence, and injuries.

The key is, again, approaching it as a problem we all need to deal with. “It needs to be a collective societal response, and everybody needs to be part of this. And we [public health] are willing to be part of that solution,” Dr. Benjamin explains. “Public health is saying let’s identify the problems, and let’s put our tax dollars in an effective way to solve the problems.”

It may help us reframe other systemic inequities as public health problems

“I think that highlighting police brutality as a public health issue might help us think about how we frame some of the inequalities and inequities in our other systems as public health issues,” Alang says.

While it’s important that we hone in on the problem of police brutality, we also need to see it as one piece in a series of interlocking systems of oppression. “Police brutality is just one indicator of white supremacy, it’s just one indicator of structural racism,” Alang says. “Systems of oppression go hand in hand, [so] we can’t just isolate and treat police brutality.”

We need to look upstream, Alang says, and understand how racism and white supremacy permeate and operate in all of our institutions—the health care system, the educational system, the criminal justice system—and understand how these systems impact public health, Alang explains. “That way we can actually get to the point where we can achieve larger structural changes.”


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