Researchers study health impacts of police brutality

Rachel Hardeman (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Although Blacks make up 13 percent of today’s U.S. population, they account for at least 24 percent of fatal police shootings. Blacks are nearly 2.5 times as likely as Whites to be shot and killed by the police.

In 2015, the Washington Post used a “real time base” of news reports, public records and other sources to track statistics on the total number of people killed by the police in the United
States. In 2016, two out of 14 Minnesotans killed were Black; moreover, 233 out of 963 persons in the country killed by police officers were Black. So far this year, Blacks have accounted for 89 out of 352 persons killed by police.

Rachel Hardeman and Donna McAlpine of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Sirry Alang of Lehigh University, and Ellen McCreedy of Brown University researched the health impact of police brutality toward African Americans. The researchers noted in the American Journal of Public Health that such brutality toward Blacks in the United States is not new.

“In the absence of a standard definition of good data, the extent of police brutality remains difficult to quantify,” they report, adding that the issue should no longer be ignored. They recommend “five pathways” through which public health scholars should examine police brutality as a social determinant of health: Fatal injuries; racist public reactions that cause stress; arrest, incarcerations, and legal, medical and funeral bills that cause financial strain; integrated oppressive structures that cause systematic disempowerment; and adverse psychological responses that increase morbidity.

“We think these pathways can help researchers determine specific areas of study to gather that evidence. We know it’s a problem, but we need empirical evidence to inform policy,” Hardeman said in a U of M press release.

“It’s really about documenting the lived experience,” explained the professor. “While numbers and tables are important, they’re not as powerful as a first-hand account. Every number has a story behind it, and we need to understand those narratives to really understand the problem.”

“Police violence and police brutality is a [health] issue,” Hardeman reiterated in a recent MSR phone interview. “We need to start thinking about it in that way.”

Hardeman noted that brutality is a hot topic whenever there is another incident of police violence. Social media is helping to keep the topic in the public’s eye — the late Philando Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to live stream what happened to him after Castile was shot by a police officer after a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.

“Millions of people had access to [the Castile video],” said Hardeman, “and that’s a very powerful and painful thing for the Black community to see. That certainly has an impact on the psychological well-being of those who witness it, and we need to quantify that.”

The four researchers also pointed out that while physical injuries and death are direct results of police brutality, there are many other aspects of such violence that impact the community. Hardeman added that racism, which “keeps Black people from…being healthy,” must be dismantled; more studies are needed on just how police brutality impacts Black health.

“It is a huge part of my research agenda,” concluded Hardeman.


Information from the Washington Post and the U of M School of Public Health was used in this report.

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