Policing is Trauma for Black Communities

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

Intro: Historical Context

On March 3, 1991, Rodney King survived an egregious act of police brutality at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. Graphic footage of the beating was captured by an amateur cameraman bystander and sold to a local television station. Despite the national and global virality of this video which depicted unjust and excessive use of force, the police officers involved in the beating were acquitted. This chain of events sparked massive protests in Los Angeles and throughout the United States and laid the groundwork for anti-police brutality activism in this country. Today, almost three decades after the Rodney King beating, we are reliving our nation’s traumatic history. There are currently national protests over the murder of George Floyd (and many, many others) at the hands of police. On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was murdered by a White Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for over 8 minutes, even after he became unresponsive. Video footage of the encounter became viral and widely shared on social media, sparking protests across the country on an even larger scale than some of us witnessed almost thirty years ago in response to the Rodney King case.

Protest in Washington DC following the murder of George Floyd

Psychological Consequences of Policing Disparities

So how do these disparities in policing impact the mental health of Black communities? Research suggests Black individuals who encounter police experience a plethora of negative mental health consequences, including psychological distress and depression, suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, and psychotic episodes. If you’re a Black person reading this…how do you feel when you encounter a police officer? Some new research suggests that Black people might experience a trauma response when we encounter the police.

Trauma and the Trauma of Policing

Today, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the militarized police presence and tear gassing to silence protesters is reminiscent of the militarized police in the 1960s, who violently beat and hosed down Black demonstrators during the Civil Rights Movement. Witnessing viral video recordings of the ubiquitous killing of unarmed Black men by police in modern times can be compared to public lynchings, a form of racialized trauma popular in the late 19th century. Intergenerational trauma is the accumulation of acute traumas spanning across multiple generations of racial/ethnic minorities, including institutionalized racism and segregation. The trauma of police violence against Black Americans is transmitted intergenerationally through essential racial socialization practices. For example, Black parents are tasked with preparing their children to be vigilant about potentially dangerous encounters with racially biased police officers who target them.

A militarized police presence in response to peaceful protests in Washington DC

Recent empirical research backs up this theoretical pondering. Some of the recent research suggests that frequency of police encounters is associated with trauma symptoms, including but not limited to nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts. One study found that among young men in an urban setting, those who had more contact with police and greater intrusiveness of the stops reported greater trauma and anxiety symptoms. Another study found that African American college students who had more encounters with police officers experienced a heightened stress response compared to those who did not encounter the police. Focus groups with Black youth in youth programs in Connecticut revealed that these children are generally fearful of the police, and that they modify their behaviors to keep themselves safe around police. Some of these behaviors include removing their hood around police and avoiding the police in general, actions which clearly demonstrate hypervigilance, a common stress response to traumatic or life-threatening situations. While the literature base is limited, the evidence is compelling.

Conclusion…or a New Beginning?

This original piece is cross-posted to Psychology Today

Please contact me with any questions or concerns: syee1@umd.edu

Young Black lady therapist in Washington, DC. Lover of all things psychology, hip hop, and intersectional justice.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store