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Police Violence Detrimental to Public Health

by Douglas Ankney

The 25,000-member American Public Health Association (“APHA”) issued a statement addressing police violence that begins: “Law enforcement violence is a critical public health issue.” And in what could be termed a “typical case in support,” Joseph Goldstein of The New York Times reported the tragic stories of Khiel Coppin and Na’im Owens — two brothers shot and killed by New York Police Department (“NYPD”) officers.

The brothers lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Their mother, Denise Elliott-Ownes, was a teacher from Trinidad and Tobago who had moved to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. Khiel was killed in 2007 because officers reportedly mistook a hairbrush inside his sweatshirt for a handgun. A few months later, Na’im turned 16 and became a regular “target” for cops.

This was the era of stop-and-frisk. Beginning in 2008, NYPD officers stopped Na’im regularly.

That year, according to Goldstein, police recorded 540,000 stops. By 2011, there were over 685,000 stops annually.

Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg claimed stop-and-frisk was a successful measure addressing gun violence. But the facts reveal guns were recovered in fewer than 0.2 percent of the stops. Stop-and-frisk was a pretext simply to routinely stop, harass, humiliate, and abuse Black and Latinx boys and men. Almost 90 percent of all stops from 2002 through 2011 were of Black and Latinx residents.

Na’im was routinely subjected to the ritual degradation of being forced to lean against a car, spreading his legs, and getting patted down. In one recorded complaint to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, he described how an officer beat him with a baton. His sister, Kay (she is now an attorney and requested to be identified only by nickname), said, “Stop-and-frisk is one of the reasons I think why our paths diverged and Na’im went toward the street. It changed how I think he saw himself.” Na’im was killed in 2014 in a shootout with uniformed and plainclothed officers.

In articles appearing in the American Journal of Public Health, APHA identified “[i]nappropriate stops by law enforcement [as] one form of psychological violence with serious implications for public health” and “stops perceived as unfair, discriminatory, or intrusive are associated with adverse mental health outcomes, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.” The articles also examined the relationship between negative police encounters and mass incarceration. They wrote, “A public health approach neither accepts harm as a given nor accepts punishment as prevention.” Those words, clear and convincing, provide a starting point on what safety, healing, and justice demand. Those words refuse the false premise that safety comes through infliction of violence and reminds us of the truth: violent policing, criminalization, and incarceration are threats to health.

The APHA concluded: “In short, to address law enforcement violence as a public health issue, it is critical that the public’s health and well-being be prioritized.” 



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