Policing is Trauma for Black Communities
Intro: Historical Context
You may have recently heard about what at first may seem like radical proposals from some police brutality activists, including initiatives to defund and for some, completely abolish the police. These calls to action have been around for a long time, however have reached public attention as a result of the recent global protests against police brutality. In order to form an informed opinion about these proposals, it may be helpful for some (who haven’t experienced police violence firsthand) to reframe the way we understand how policing is experienced in certain communities. First, it is important for us to be reminded of some 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.
Psychological Consequences of Policing Disparities
Black Americans are more likely than any other racial group to be killed by law enforcement, and are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed by police as White Americans. In the United States from 2015–2016, approximately 30% of the individuals killed by police were Black, despite Black people comprising only 13% of the population.
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
So what exactly is trauma? According to the most recent Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), trauma is a stressful event involving “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” A trauma response entails severe psychological distress, including feelings of shame and fear, or alterations in cognitive abilities such as executive functioning. Generally, Black adults suffer disproportionately from PTSD compared to other racial groups, and these disparities must be understood in the context of centuries of racial trauma experienced by Black people in the United States. This racial trauma includes but is not limited to state-sanctioned violence during times of enslavement, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement, mass incarceration, and police brutality.
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.
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 emerging literature base suggests that some Black people modify their behaviors and very way of life in order to stay safe around police officers. There has been increased attention to the far too common killings of Black people at the hands of police. However, it is also important to discuss the long-standing broken relationships between the police and the communities they are failing to serve, and the psychological toll of vulnerability to police violence. It shouldn’t take graphic public murders for us to want to change a failed system. We could be on the brink of major changes, and it is up to us collectively to decide the potential of that change. To start, viewing police encounters with Black Americans through a trauma lens may help some of us better understand at least part of the rationale behind abolishing the police entirely. It also may help some people engage in less victim-blaming when Black civilians are harmed by the police. For instance, wouldn’t you run too if you are fearing for your life? The narrative we build around what is happening in our country right now and the subsequent action we take will directly impact how things change for the better… or stay the same as they were thirty years ago.
This original piece is cross-posted to Psychology Today
Please contact me with any questions or concerns: firstname.lastname@example.org