National News

Police Killings Have Harmed Mental Health in Black Communities, Study Finds

Posted June 21, 2018 11:16 a.m. EDT

Activists for racial justice have long expressed concern that the rash of headline-grabbing police killings of black Americans was damaging the mental well-being of African-American communities.

A report published in The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, on Thursday appears to give credence to those concerns.

Using mental health survey data and a database of police shootings, a team of health researchers concluded that when police officers in the United States kill unarmed black people, it damages the mental health of black Americans living in those states.

The mental health of white Americans was not similarly affected, the researchers found. Nor were negative health effects associated with police killings of unarmed white Americans or armed black Americans.

While these findings might seem unsurprising, particularly to African-Americans, the researchers contended that their study was a significant attempt to assess the measurable, if indirect, harms that police violence has inflicted on the broader psychological and emotional well-being of African-Americans.

“'Having seen something so horrific and traumatic that happened to someone else, I’m reminded in a very painful and salient way that the deck might be stacked against me,'” Atheendar S. Venkataramani, one of the study’s authors, said of how black people might perceive police killings. “It’s really about all the kinds of insidious ways that structural racism can make people sick.”

Venkataramani, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted the study along with Jacob Bor of Boston University, David R. Williams of Harvard and Alexander C. Tsai of Massachusetts General Hospital.

The researchers analyzed responses from 2013 to 2016 to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national survey that interviews more than 400,000 adults, selected at random each year, about their health. They juxtaposed responses to questions regarding mental health with data from Mapping Police Violence, a database of police killings around the country.

The annual health survey is done by telephone on a rolling basis throughout the year, and the researchers analyzed responses given by residents in states where a police killing had occurred in the three months before they were interviewed. They found that black Americans reported more “not good” mental health days in the period after a police killing of an unarmed black person, and that the killings accounted for up to 1.7 additional days of poor mental health a year.

The study’s authors could not say definitively that the respondents to the health survey knew about the police killings that had happened in their states, or describe how, precisely, the news about the killings might have harmed their mental health.

Still, Venkataramani said the effects were observable and real. If anything, he said, the findings might understate the extent of the trauma, as some police killings of unarmed African-Americans have become events of national significance, reaching far beyond the states where they occurred. (The study cited, among the most notable examples, the police killings of Oscar Grant III in California, in 2009; of Michael Brown Jr. in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, in 2014; of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Freddie Gray in Maryland, in 2015; and of Stephon Clark in California, earlier this year.)

“Maybe this is the tip of the iceberg,” Venkataramani said.

While a study like this one helps to underscore the impact of police killings on black communities, what’s important is what is done with the findings, said Mama Ayanna Mashama, an activist and organizer in Oakland, California, who practices natural wellness healing. Mashama said she had seen firsthand how police violence can cause anger and angst, and damage the self-esteem of black Americans.

“We have to find ways of de-escalating police response to black people,” she said. “It has to become policy. It has to become part of how it’s implemented from the top down. We have to have trauma-informed practices everywhere: in the schools, in families, in workplaces.”