The Impact of Police Killings on the Mental Health of African American Males

Police are legally authorized to use non-negotiable force in order to protect our community as they are provided with batons, tasers, as well as lethal weapons for both protection and defense. In recent decades, many police departments have taken advantage of these lethal weapons for increased personal protection. The majority of police departments spend a considerable amount of money to train their officers on proper police defense tactics, “do not shoot” scenarios, and how and when to safely deploy weapons. This training is an important criterion for a department to obtain accreditation from the Commission of Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA) [1].

Did you know, if a police officer has to draw and fire his or her weapon, the officer is trained to fire at the upper torso or head to damage the central nervous system or other vital organs to terminate any suspected lethal threat from an individual? Officers are taught that shooting a suspect in the arm or leg is not an acceptable use of lethal force, especially if the suspect can return fire and potentially kill the police officers or another person [2]. This can lead to higher risk of potential death of an unarmed suspect as the officer is forced to act based on assumption.

The presence of video recordings by bystanders has captured the use and misuse of lethal force by police officers against African Americans which has severely threatened the black community’s faith in law enforcement [3]. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was formed in 2013 when an African American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed due to gun violence. It became a nationally recognized movement in 2014 following street protests after the firearm deaths of two African American males, Michael of Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner of New York City [4].

BLM is a chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes [5]. The group has now formed 23 chapters located in the United States, Guam, and Canada [6].

On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer. His death was the result of a police encounter that followed his participation in a convenient store robbery. Brown had stolen two packs of cigarillos using his size and physical force to intimidate the store clerk. Moments later Officer Darren Wilson approached Brown and his friend, as they fit the description of those involved in a theft nearby. The officer questioned Brown about the theft which then led to a shooting altercation. Immediately after the shooting, crowds began to form around the crime to protest the shooting of Michael Brown. The St. Louis County Police Chief later informed the community that Brown was unarmed [7].

Police officers and other law enforcers have been found to exhibit universal implicit bias against racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. The use of more force and violence towards African Americans compared to that of whites exhibits racial profiling of “a significant number of the population” [8]. Some white officers have been taught, informally or formally, that African Americans are more likely to be more aggressively involved in criminal activities, which is why some may be prone to discriminate against African American males [9].

Implicit bias, which involves underlying bias and stereotypes that influence actions, seem to play a large role in the shootings. Police often do not realize that this bias is affecting them as shootings seem to be overlooked by many, because they are unfortunately becoming more common. The fact that they have been trained to assume a higher level of threat associated with African American males gives the misconception that their actions seem justifiable. There is evidence that implicit bias has contributed to negative impacts on mental health as a consequence of police shootings associated with African Americans. The threat of getting shot or potentially killed by police induces a sense of fear and panic, which leads to African Americans lacking a sense of safety or belonging in their own neighborhoods. Not only does this threat impact their mental health, but the shootings of unarmed African Americans may lead to a sense of lower social status, or even a decrease in self worth as experienced by their predecessors [10].

Besides these self-deprecating influences, police brutality can also lead to detrimental effects such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Effects of PTSD include “intense, disturbing thoughts,” which may lead to fear of encounters with police officers based upon previous negative experiences. This may cause African American males to be less likely to contact the police in times of distress due to the mistrust and anger brought on by the history and reputation of these encounters[11].

A study, carried out to understand the impacts that police shootings have, involved cross-referencing police killings that occurred in the same state as government health survey. Nearly 100,000 African Americans, who were exposed to shootings of their own people, were shown to have 1.7 more days of low mental health per year. The same study also analyzed responses from white Americans regarding how they assessed their own mental health. There was a stark difference in results. White Americans reported their mental health as relatively unaffected whenever police killings would occur. Even if there was no relation between the victim of the shooting and the African Americans surveyed, there was still a decline in their mental health. This is not to say that white Americans were not affected, it merely states that the effect on white Americans was not extreme enough to cause significant impacts. On the other hand, African Americans, had “reactions of anger, activation of prior traumas and communal bereavement.” This shows that structural racism, in the form of police shootings, can vicariously threaten the entire African American community. The study also helped clear the misconception that police killings only affect those closely involved in the shooting such as friends and family members[12].

Another study, carried out using the US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, included African Americans above the age 18. They were asked to think about their mental health “which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions,” and were asked to assess “how many days during the past 30 days was [their] mental health not good?” The response rate for this group of individuals was much higher than other groups. These respondents also reported that they experienced around 4 days of poor mental health on a monthly basis.

 

This figure compares the mental health of white Americans to black Americans. Black Americans display a higher change in poor mental health days as a result from exposure to police killings compared to the change displayed by white Americans [13].

A study done with 103,710 African Americans, half of which were exposed to a police shooting, showed that each police killing witnessed led to a 0.14-day increase of poor mental health. The study was done to show the effects on mental health of African Americans with exposure to police killings as compared to an African American not exposed to these events. “Exposure to one or more police killings within a three-month period was associated with a 0.35-day increase in poor mental health days,” emphasizing the idea that exposure to police killings is associated with a negative flux in mental health. Studies were done on an individual level, in order to understand the impact on the mind of each individual [14].

Contrary to popular belief, this inequity has many consequences including various health effects. Due to stress and fear among the African American population caused by the actions of police officers associated with implicit biases, African Americans are at higher risk of long term effects such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity as compared to any other group. This is because certain stressors may lead to poor lifestyle choices, which can negatively impact the overall wellbeing of this particular group [15].

Not only is the mental health of African Americans influenced, but white police officers are exposed to fear induced by these troubling encounters. If this fear is justifiable for deadly force by police officers, then it is not difficult see how these unarmed victims of police shootings could be perceived as “threats,” regardless of whether they showed having aggressive behavior [16]. This constitutes the use of ‘justified homicide’ which is a common self-defense mechanism utilized when police are faced with what they interpret to be a life or death situation.

The concept of ‘justified homicide’ is a debatable subject between officers and unarmed African American victims concerning excessive police force used in self-defense mechanisms. According to FBI statistics, African Americans represented 31% of all shooting victims by the police in 2014. Also, because police departments are not required to report police involved homicide, only 50% out of the 14,800 police agencies report these incidents [17]. This calls to question certain morals as the insurance of racial and criminal justice can be easily overlooked when legal harm is used to suppress an individual. Similarly, because there is no formal way to indicate that homicidal death is caused by legal intervention in autopsy reports, data is often misconstrued to lessen the representation of racial bias in police killings. This opens a window for structural racism, as African Americans are subject to higher rates of discrimination. As previously stated, some police officers are “taught that African Americans are more likely to be violent,” allowing a degree of prejudice to exist as officers have preconceived notions and assumptions about African Americans in general [18]. This creates an inaccurate representation of the racial disparities between white and African American victims of police violence. A lack of accuracy in data representation of police killings among African Americans has prompted independent groups, such as the Washington Post, to collect their own data on victims of fatal police shootings. These data sets are by maintained and updated through the process of “searching local news reports, law enforcement websites, social media, and by monitoring independent databases” [19]. Figure 1 provides a visual representation of firearm deaths of African Americans based off reports provided by law enforcement officials. The homicide category accounts for 81% of deaths, whereas the legal intervention category only accounts for 1.5% of the deaths. This exemplifies a clear misrepresentation of data as well as a failure of the Department of Justice to accurately report the use of legal force by police.

The use of legal force on African American men instills fear and anger, creating a negative connotation surrounding police officers as they have endured centuries of violence and oppression by their white counterparts. Certain stressors such as the disparity in the killings of whites vs. African Americans by police officers have negatively impacted the overall quality of mental health in the black community [20]. The idea of John Henryism comes into play as it implies that “black men experience chronic stressors shaped by poverty and discrimination.” When these stressors are paired with a general fear of law enforcement, it is no surprise that a sense of resentment is fostered against white police officers. One study has recently concluded that African American males are “21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than white males,” alluding to the fact that there is a major flaw in our justice system [21].

Legal force has also cultivated the presence of structural racism in our country’s law enforcement agency. The disproportionate search and seizure as well as mass incarceration of African Americans in comparison to whites emphasizes the idea of structural racism in our society which creates “systematic disadvantages among people of color” [22]. Structural racism, or institutionalized racism, can be defined as “the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color” [23]. These advantages are not limited to the criminal justice system, but also include elements of healthcare, occupation, economic status, and other numerous factors that put African Americans in a position that often results in indirect mistreatment as racial inequity becomes an institutional norm. Though there are other forms of structural racism, this ideology is heavily manifested in criminal justice as white police officers have implicit biases against those of color which triggers physical and mental responses that often threaten the well-being of African Americans.

In order to counteract the racial disparity in these police killings, it is suggested that new methods of training be implemented in order to lessen the divide between the African American community and white police officers. Several policies have been proposed to train new police officers of the present and worsening racial prejudice that exists in the law enforcement system. Similarly, new officers should be trained to view each perpetrator with equal levels of threat. The growing disparity between the criminal justice of whites and African Americans has constituted a larger problem that has created a negative flux in the mental health of African Americans as they not only feel inferior, but also feel they are at higher risk for police brutality.

Kalayah Evans

Anna Eskew

Owais Kamdar

[1] Perry Lyle and Ashraf M. Esmail, “Sworn to Protect: Police Brutality – a Dilemma for America’s Police,” Race, Gender & Class; New Orleans 23, no. 3/4 (2016): 155–85.

[2] James H. Price and Erica Payton, “Implicit Racial Bias and Police Use of Lethal Force: Justifiable Homicide or Potential Discrimination?,” Journal of African American Studies; New York 21, no. 4 (December 2017): 674–83, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12111-017-9383-3.

[3] Robert Bernasconi, “When Police Violence Is More Than Violent Policing,” CR: The New Centennial Review 14, no. 2 (July 18, 2014): 145–52.

[4] Price and Payton, “Implicit Racial Bias and Police Use of Lethal Force.”

[5] “Black Lives Matter | About,” accessed April 8, 2019, https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/.

[6] Jennifer Jee-Lyn García and Mienah Zulfacar Sharif, “Black Lives Matter: A Commentary on Racism and Public Health,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 8 (June 11, 2015): e27–30, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302706.

[7] Lyle and Esmail, “Sworn to Protect.”

[8] Bernasconi, “When Police Violence Is More Than Violent Policing.”

[9] Price and Payton, “Implicit Racial Bias and Police Use of Lethal Force”; Alicia D. Simmons, “WHOSE LIVES MATTER?: The National Newsworthiness of Police Killing Unarmed Blacks,” Du Bois Review; Cambridge 14, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 639–63, http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X17000212.

[10] Mark Moran, “Study Exposes Mental Health Effects of Police Shootings on Black Communities,” Psychiatrics News, July 31, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.pn.2018.7b3.

[11] “What Is PTSD?,” accessed April 8, 2019, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd.

[12] Erin B. Logan, “This Is How Police Killings Affect Black Mental Health,” Washington Post – Blogs; Washington, July 10, 2018, https://search.proquest.com/docview/2066937203/citation/75923B6C9FF84888PQ/1.

[13] Jacob Bor et al., “Police Killings and Their Spillover Effects on the Mental Health of Black Americans: A Population-Based, Quasi-Experimental Study,” The Lancet 392, no. 10144 (July 28, 2018): 302–10, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31130-9.

[14] Moran, “Study Exposes Mental Health Effects of Police Shootings on Black Communities.”

[15] Monique Hill French, “Police Brutality Is a Threat to Public Health,” Recorder; Indianapolis, Ind., August 5, 2016, sec. To Your Health.

[16] Michael Brooks et al., “Is There a Problem Officer? Exploring the Lived Experience of Black Men and Their Relationship with Law Enforcement,” Journal of African American Studies; New York 20, no. 3–4 (December 2016): 346–62, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12111-016-9334-4.

[17] Lyle and Esmail, “Sworn to Protect.”

[18] Price and Payton, “Implicit Racial Bias and Police Use of Lethal Force.”

[19] Price and Payton.

[20] Rachel R. Hardeman, Eduardo M. Medina, and Katy B. Kozhimannil, “Structural Racism and Supporting Black Lives — The Role of Health Professionals,” The New England Journal of Medicine; Boston 375, no. 22 (December 1, 2016): 2113–15, http://dx.doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp1609535.

[21] Keon L. Gilbert and Rashawn Ray, “Why Police Kill Black Males with Impunity: Applying Public Health Critical Race Praxis (PHCRP) to Address the Determinants of Policing Behaviors and ‘Justifiable’ Homicides in the USA,” Journal of Urban Health 93, no. 1 (April 1, 2016): 122–40, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-015-0005-x.

[22] Jee-Lyn García and Sharif, “Black Lives Matter.”

[23] “Definitions of Racism.Pdf,” accessed April 8, 2019, https://www.intergroupresources.com/rc/Definitions%20of%20Racism.pdf.

 

4 Comments

  1. I think it is very interesting that police officers are taught to shoot at the upper torso or head, because this would escalate the number of deaths from shootings. If someone is shot in the arm or leg, I think there would be enough time or pain for the police officer to handcuff them before they are able to regain their power and threaten them again. I also researched police killings and one of the sources I used focused on the idea that police officers are not trained well enough in de-escalating situations and providing the most nonviolent response to situations, which can be highlighted by them being trained to shoot at the upper body. Do you think changing this would help the situation or would it put it the officers at more risk? Also, you all highlight that “police officers are taught that African Americans are more likely to be violent”, which could cause more violent responses, so how would you change these biases?

  2. I thought this topic was extremely interesting to read about and, unfortunately, a topic that is not widely spoken about. While we hear about police officers killing African Americans, we rarely hear about the impact that has on the mental health of the person’s family, friends, and entire community. Witnessing these shootings and having family members or friends die from these shootings has been shown to cause mental distress and is a problem that is not being addressed. The implicit racial bias many of us have unconsciously is definitely a problem we should all be recognizing and actively trying to better and counteract. While it is a hard problem to solve, what do you all think is a good starting point in reducing the number of African Americans who are killed by police officers? It truly is a tragedy that many African Americans live their lives going through these situations and are not receiving the mental health help they need. If anyone is interested, there is a really great documentary on Netflix called “13th” about the 13th amendment and how the criminal justice system is a modern form of slavery that partly talks about police killings.

  3. Parian Covington

    April 24, 2019 at 3:43 pm

    I love how this article places emphasis not only on how African-American males are targeted by police officers, but how these killings are affecting the mental health of people within the black community. Mental health is a topic that is rarely discussed in black communities, but I like how this article shed light on the significance of mental health. I also found it interesting that police officers are trained to shoot in the torso or at the head because that is something I did not know. I definitely think they should try to find another way to go about this, but I think this is a problem that will never be solved until it starts to affect the majorities. If anyone is seriously interested in this topic, you should watch a movie or read the book called “The Hate U Give,” because it is about police brutality and it is very touching.

  4. The most disturbing stories in the media recently have been about high-class black children being shot or detained for walking around their own, predominantly white neighborhoods. They can’t even be safe at home. This article shows exactly why they never feel safe. Black Americans are scared of even routine traffic stops because they can escalate quickly for no reason. There is a major problem in the justice system and I liked the way this article brought some of the issues to light. I had no idea police were trained to take kill shots. I always assumed they were trained to shoot to disarm or disorient the suspect, but it sounds like they are trained to kill, especially when dealing with colored individuals. I also didn’t know that this police bias affected the physical health of these individuals increasing risk of unhealthy lifestyle choices leading to heart problems and obesity. This makes sense because they can be related to stress eating. Being constantly in fear of your life would certainly lead to a lot of stress. This post is so clearly showing terrible racism that still exists and calls for serious system reform. My post was about mass shootings in schools and the mental health of survivors of these shootings is similar to the mental health of blacks in America. They didn’t even know all the victims of police violence but it affects them the same. This post makes me want to change our system and make it actually about justice.

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