Last month, Tyre Nichols died during a traffic stop. Five police officers have been criminally charged in relation to his death, and one additional law enforcement officer and two emergency responders were terminated. Published reports describe Tyre Nichols as a free-spirited photographer, father and son who was “just trying to go home.”
Tyre should have made it home, but instead his name is added to a list of Black men, women and children who have died during an encounter with police or in police custody. Policing has been recognized by multiple medical organizations as a public health threat because, like biological factors, social constructs and connections affect the health, function, and quality of life of individuals.
Each time a person, often Black and male, loses their life while in custody, the Black community makes a collective outcry. We call for change, yet change has escaped our grasp—the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 remains stagnant.
In the United States, about 1,000 people die at the hands of law enforcement annually. African Americans are three times more likely to die than a White person during a police encounter. According to the National Academy of Science, one in 1,000 African American men or boys will be killed by police in their lifetime.
A Minnesota Department of Health report found that between 2016-2021 there were 177 fatalities that occurred during law enforcement services calls. Of these, 45% were due to interpersonal use of force, 31% were suicide, 22% were accidents, and the remaining could not be determined. Black civilians were about 4.5 times as likely as their White counterparts to be involved in a fatal encounter.
The family of Tyre Nichols filed an urgent appeal to the United Nations. An urgent appeal is used to seek intervention to prevent the loss of life due to “imminent or ongoing damage of a grave nature.”
The family statement says, “Today, we filed an Urgent Appeal before the United Nations asking it to condemn the tragic killing of Tyre Nichols, to demand transparency from the police department, and to demand that Officer Preston Hemphill and all officers that participated in the incident are criminally charged.”
The letter has specific demands including mandating the use of body cameras for all law enforcement, the immediate release of video footage and audio recordings following incidents involving police killings, and ending the provision of military equipment to and military training of police. They are demanding change to eliminate the misuse of police, over-policing, and to remove law enforcement officers who violate public trust.
The majority of law enforcement are dedicated to public safety and upholding their office. The National Medical Association is calling for increased research into excessive policing that contributes to unnecessary injury, morbidity, and premature death; a change to the standard death certificate to include death in custody when a death occurs during a police encounter, while in custody or incarcerated; and an end to the use of the term “excited delirium,” a catch-all for deaths occurring in the context of restraint that is disproportionately used to explain the sudden deaths of Black men during police encounters.
When speaking about his photography, Tyre is quoted as saying, “My vision is to bring viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and out through my lens. People have a story to tell, why not capture it.”
Black people have a story to tell. Only we can tell our story. I am calling for all mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers to contact at least three local, state or federal officials to tell our story to advocate for meaningful police reform in order to end this public health threat.
Dr. Dionne Hart is board certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine practicing in Illinois and Minnesota. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mayo Clinic. In 2014, Dr. Hart was named Minnesota Psychiatrist of the Year. In 2017, Dr. Hart received the National Alliance on Mental Illness Exemplary Psychiatrist Award.
Dr. Hart holds local, state, and national positions in organized medicine. Dr. Hart was the inaugural chair of the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Minority Affairs Section. She is an American Psychiatric Association delegate to the AMA House of Delegates, a member of the Minnesota Medical Association Board of Trustees, president of the Minnesota Association of African American Physicians, chairperson of National Medical Association’s Region IV, and the AMA liaison to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Board of Representatives.
In 2020, Minnesota Physician journal named her one of the 100 most influential healthcare leaders in Minnesota. Recently, Dr. Hart was recognized by the Minnesota African American Heritage Calendar Committee as an honoree for the Class of 2023 and recipient of a Certificate of Recognition by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz.
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