Police Violence and Public Health

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In the wake of Sandy Hook, the response from physicians, and pediatricians in particular, was astounding. The tragic deaths moved doctors to address gun violence and its health consequences.

But week after week, as black boys who could be my sons and black men who could be my father, are shot and killed by police, doctors remain silent. As a pediatrician, I’m appalled.

We are watching a public health problem unfold in front of us and we aren’t doing anything to stop it.

When someone is involved in a police shooting, they are at risk for injury, disability, and as we’ve seen, death. But those who witness the trauma may also be affected. And if they are children, that effect may follow them into adulthood.

Public police shootings turn neighborhoods into minefields where African-Americans fear suddenly finding themselves in harms-way. Those who escape the line of fire are then victimized by the ever-present fear of harassment, incarceration, injury or death.

Like the trauma experienced by war veterans, living under the threat of unprovoked police violence triggers intense emotional and physical stress, even in moments of relative safety.

The chronic stress that fear generates, may place African-Americans at increased risk for health problems like heart and lung disease, and depression.

If we’re going to understand and address the impact police violence has on community safety and health, particularly for communities of color who are disproportionately victimized, we have to treat it the way we treat all threats to health. That means collecting data to quantify the magnitude of the problem, developing screening guidelines to identify those at risk, training medical staff to refer those at risk of impending danger, and funding interventions that address community violence including police violence.

Tonight, too many parents will tuck their children into bed, only to worry that tomorrow, their curious 10-year-old may be the victim of a police shooting because the combination of a growth spurt and black skin threatened their life. Today, we have to do
more to recognize the worry in our community and prevent those fears from becoming reality.

* This piece was featured on Northern California’s NPR affiliate KQED as a perspectives piece. It airs live on April 29th at 6:43am, 8:43am, and 11:30pm. To hear an audio reading of the piece on KQED’s website, click here.

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Walter Scott and a Pediatrician’s Conscience

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The recent killing of Walter Scott was another brutal reminder of the home African-Americans wake to daily. Their America, is one where your father might not come home at night, because his brake light went out and that cost him his life. It’s a place where petty crimes are penalized by life sentences, doled out on the streets by the very men and women charged with their protection. But too often, they don’t find protection. And black men and boys are left lying there, without aid or comfort, in a pool of their own blood, for all to see the boundaries of permissible police conduct.

For there is no crime too small for which black fathers and sons may face imminent death. For some, death may merely be a traffic ticket away. And for others, no crime is even necessary. Simply disobeying social expectations, or committing crimes against the social order, can threaten an African-American’s life, if one encounters the wrong officer or wrong neighbor, wearing the wrong hoodie or playing with the wrong toy. For them, their public presence can be a justifiable cause for homicide and their assailant may not even face trial.

So as the death toll rises, the leading cause of death for black males aged 10-24 fails to shock anyone – it’s homicide. But you might be surprised to know that doctors are doing little to nothing about it.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, the response from physicians, and pediatricians in particular, was astounding. But as boys who could be my sons and men who could be my father, lie in the street, week after week, the medical profession is silent and I’m frankly appalled.

These deaths should weigh on every physician’s professional conscience. They rip into the very fabric of our degree and challenge the meaning of practices essential to modern medicine – harm reduction and disease prevention. If we, as a field, fail to even acknowledge the lives lost, let alone devise systematic interventions, at a certain point, we fail to honor the oath of our practice and to serve the core of our professional obligations.

Targeted police violence against African-Americans is a public health problem and it uniquely affects children. Yet to this date, there has been no public statement on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, or any other professional medical association to my knowledge, recognizing the tragic deaths of African-American men and boys across this nation. So while my lone voice is hardly sufficient, I offer these words as a part of my professional responsibility to care for the lives of all my patients, big and small.

  • The toll police killings take on black families, including those not directly involved in the events of violence, matters and the chronic stress it generates may adversely affect family dynamics, community safety, and the mental and physical health of African-Americans of all ages.
  • Adolescents, both male and female, commonly participate in risk-taking behaviors as a part of their development as youth. Those same behaviors can have significant and lasting costs for African-Americans, as they may suffer higher rates of arrest, incarceration, and death.
  • Efforts should be taken on behalf of physicians caring for black families to discuss the toll police killings have on health. If there is concern for impending danger, appropriate referrals to local authorities and community organizations should be sought on behalf of the physician, nurse, or medical staff.
  • Preventative health screening guidelines for children and adults should include risks of gun violence, including police violence.
  • Training will be needed for physicians to appropriately discuss these concerns with families, screen youth for risk behaviors, and refer at-risk individuals to further services.
  • Funding for clinical interventions to address police killings should also support local organizations that work to decrease community violence.

Too many parents tuck their children into bed, only to worry that tomorrow, their curious 10-year-old may be the victim of police-related violence because the combination of a growth spurt and black skin threatened their life. Too many physicians either don’t know that, or don’t care. Because I’d have to imagine that if we knew and cared, we’d be doing something very different in medicine.

This is my plea for us to do something different. Silence is not okay. This is our responsibility, just as it is for all Americans to re-think what these deaths mean for our society. Because if this legacy of violence isn’t weighing on everyone’s conscience, we are all doing something wrong.