Police Encounters Cause Stress Among Black Men

Stress leads to disease

Black men don’t get medical treatment and die earlier

By Rosemary Eng

STANFORD Calif. — Community policing can be bad for public health

At a public health symposium at Stanford University March 6 scholars from Stanford Medicine and Stanford Law School described long-lasting health problems negative police encounters can trigger, particularly in minorities and the poor.

Think about the body’s response to a truck barreling towards at you.  For kids, being stopped by the police or anticipation of being stopped by the police “feels like a truck coming at you every day,” said Marcella Alsan, assistant professor of medicine at Stanford. This repeated state of distress over time can lead to problems such as addiction and even cancer.

Seeing and encountering police causes stress among black men
Seeing and encountering police causes stress among black men

Incidents of stop-and-frisk, being searched, being forced to lay down on the ground can result in a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) response, said Amanda Geller, clinical associate professor of sociology at New York University. She is one of the authors of a paper on aggressive policing and the mental health of young, urban men.

With repeated, negative police contact, oftentimes triggered only by suspicion, youths can be traumatized by the time they are 15, she said.

Charles Ramsey, co-chair of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing * under President Obama, and former commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, said young people can be targeted en masse after a report goes out about a suspect who is young, black and male wearing a white T-shirt and Timberland boots. That’s the uniform of the streets, white T-shirts and Timberland boots, he said.

To temper over-zealous policing, said Ramsey, police officers in Philly have to serve on foot patrol their first nine months. They get a much different perspective on the community than if they were in a patrol car. Out in the community they will learn “there are more decent people than not.”

A little respect can go a long way towards de-escalating encounters between the public and police, said Paul Butler, an African American professor of law at Georgetown University.

A man might be entering a building to visit his mother in a less-than-safe neighborhood as police are responding to an incident. Right away the police demand the man stop and be frisked. Why didn’t he use the buzzer? (The buzzer is broken.) Why didn’t he have a key for the door? (The lock is broken.)

In a different approach the police explain to the man entering the building that an incident just occurred and they have to make a check and ask a few questions. The guy visiting his mother wouldn’t be “jerked around” as much, said Butler.

Officers can be pushed to the point of being “hyper vigilant,” said Ramsey. He advocates  “mandated counseling” for officers who are exposed to violence on a daily basis. “Cops don’t want to admit they are struggling. They don’t want psychological assistance.” He was the first cop to sign on to counseling to set an example.

Charles Ramsey
Charles Ramsey

Stress from police encounters can lead to lower life expectancies for black men because they are the least likely to seek medical help, said Alsan.

The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which took place in Alabama from 1932 to 1972, had a long and deep effect, she says.

During those years the Public Health Service oversaw a study in which 600 African-American men, 399 with syphilis and the remainder who did not, were told they were being treated for “bad blood.” In actuality they were being observed to see what happened to people with untreated syphilis. Even after penicillin was discovered as an effective remedy, the men in the study were not treated.

These men were guinea pigs, said Alsan.

She co-authored the study, Tuskegee and the Health of Black Men for the National Bureau of Economic Research, and concluded the “disclosure of the study in 1972 (prompted by an Associated Press report) is correlated with increases in medical mistrust and mortality and decreases in both outpatient and inpatient physician interactions for older black men.”

In other words, as soon as the African-American male community became aware the men in the study, most of whom were poor and illiterate, were duped they developed a deep distrust of the medical community. Now, even promoting something as straightforward as a flu shot can raise suspicion, Alsan said.

Hispanics who suffer stress from police encounters are also under-served by the medical community and now even more so, said Victor Rios, professor of sociology at University of California at Santa Barbara. For Hispanics, going for medical care can trigger fear of deportation or deportation of family members.

Or simply said, “undocumented people won’t go for health care.”

Rios is author of Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (2011).

On a more positive, but not exactly uplifting note, James Forman, professor of law at Yale Law School, concluded that the way to go is local community action.

Local police are usually under city and county jurisdiction.  School boards determine the role of police in the schools. Get to know who your local government representatives are. “Elections matter,” he said.

*Final Report, The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing


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