Published 11:26 PM EDT Sep 14, 2018
Last week, Officer Amber Guyger was charged with manslaughter after entering an apartment she thought was hers, she says, and killing the unarmed black man who lived there.
Botham Jean's killing happened only days after another officer, Roy Oliver, was sentenced to 15 years for the murder of Jordan Edwards — a 15-year-old who was leaving a party with friends.
And on June 19, Antwon Rose Jr., a 17-year-old unarmed black male, was killed in a Pittsburgh suburb as he fled a car that had been stopped by police. He was shot in the back by Officer Michael Rosfeld, who had been hired one month before, and had only been formally sworn in hours before he took the teenager's life.
Two days after Rose's death, Boston University's School of Health and the University of Pennsylvania released a study that found the high rate of unarmed African Americans being killed at the hands of police has caused more incidents of depression, stress and other mental health issues. In other words, overwhelming police brutality is damaging the mental health of African Americans — even those who have no direct connection to men, women and teens who have lost their lives.
The context of history
The use of deadly force by police against an unarmed black American “carries with it the weight of historical injustices and current disparities in the use of state violence against black Americans,” researchers concluded.
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The study's findings aren't entirely new. In 2015, Berkley law professor Franklin Zimring analyzed 1,100 killings by police and found that the death rates for African Americans (and Native Americans) were disproportionately higher than their populations. Both groups have a history of state-sponsored injustice in the U.S.
Both groups also deal with some of the highest rates of mental health issues in the country. Between blacks and non-Hispanic whites, blacks are more likely to report serious psychological distress. Native Americans also report high levels of PTSD.
The aftermath of Rose’s death was predictable. There were public protests and demands to hold the police officer who fired the shots accountable. Rosfeld, the officer, has been indicted.
It remains to be seen whether the legal system will ultimately provide any relief to Rose, his family members and friends, or members of the black community.
Even more damning from a systemic perspective is the admission by the Allegheny County district attorney, when asked about established protocol for dealing with police use of force, that the county doesn't have a policy.
The absence of a policy is, unfortunately, the norm not the exception. Even those individual law enforcement agencies that attempt to regulate interactions almost always develop guidelines in isolation.
As little training as officers get today when it comes to use of force, they get even less training when it comes to dealing with youth.
Had officer Rosfeld, the man who killed Rose, been trained in adolescent development and the effects of trauma on behavior, he would have understood that the presence of authority figures often triggers flight-fight responses in traumatized youth, which comes from a heightened sense of powerlessness, regardless of guilt or innocence.
A public health issue
For many black youth, due to the disproportionate and often traumatic experience of police arrest and use of force against them, their family members and friends, the combination of race and authority is often lethal.
Darren Nichols, a black, Detroit-based reporter, described his own PTSD response to reading about Rose’s death: “See, Rose was 17. Yet I’m sure we shared the same panic and the adrenaline rush when you see those red and blue lights flashing behind you. It never subsides.”
Boston University and University of Pennsylvania researchers concluded that their findings support “recent calls to treat police killings as a public health issue.” They noted that failure to do so produces mental health issues and health problems: “The observed adverse mental health spillover effects of police killings of unarmed black Americans could result from heightened perceptions of threat and vulnerability, lack of fairness, lower social status, lower beliefs about one’s own worth, activation of prior traumas, and identification with the deceased.”
We suggest going a step further and incorporating a public health perspective into 21st-century policing.
Using a public health perspective would mean more than the prosecution of a single police officer. These deaths indict an entire system of recruiting, hiring, training and evaluating police officers. It would mean that no police officer should leave the academy without training on the effects of trauma, violence and poverty on behaviors — including responses to law enforcement. And all officers should leave the academy understanding how biases — implicit and explicit — directly affect actions, particularly when under stress.
Every police department should be governed by clear, consistent standards developed by experts and other stakeholders convened by state agencies. These standards should be conveyed to every officer, supported by training, and used as the basis for evaluation and discipline.
Law enforcement leaders should promote a vision in which use of force and arrest, especially when it comes to youth, are the last and least desirable outcome.
As a nation, we require and have come to expect such training and standards of doctors, nurses, home health care professionals, child care workers and teachers. Why should police — who risk their own lives and have the power to take the lives of others — be exempt?
Lisa H. Thurau is the founder and executive director of Strategies for Youth, a national nonprofit training and policy organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions and reducing disproportionate minority contact.
Johanna Wald is a writer and researcher who has written extensively about the school to prison pipeline and criminal and juvenile justice reform. She is the former director of strategic planning for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School.