ADVANCING RACIAL EQUITYAs tensions remain high about police violence in the midst of nationwide calls for racial justice, “we collectively are working to shift to an anti-racist culture in all facets in which skin color is no longer weaponized,” said APHA’s Mighty Fine.

“We don’t have all the answers, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking the questions and exploring the possibilities,” Fine, MPH, CHES, director of APHA’s Center for Practice and Public Health Development, said in introducing the speakers for the Aug. 11 webinar “Reborn Not Reformed: Re-Imagining Policing for the Public’s Health.” 

The third installment in APHA’s ongoing Advancing Racial Equity webinar series covered police violence as a public health issue and topics such as the health impacts of hyper-police surveillance on Black and Latinx communities.

Lack of data stands as a barrier in addressing the problem of police violence, said webinar presenter Rashawn Ray, PhD, David M. Rubenstein, fellow at The Brookings Institution and professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“We know how many people get the flu every year,” Ray said. “We know that the CDC collects information on how many people are killed by jellyfish every year. But we don't know how many people are killed by police.” 

Ray said only 20 states provide data on police killings, which accounts for only about 40% of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. Although the exact number of people killed by police each year is not definitively known, webinar speakers made one thing clear: the over-policing of Black and Latinx communities harms the health of the individuals in those communities and leaves a lasting impact on their lives. 

Panelist Keon Gilbert, DrPH, MPA, associate professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice and co-founder of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity, co-authored a revealing 2019 study. Researchers discovered that people living in hyper- or lethally surveilled neighborhoods were at greater risk for developing a number of health issues, such as high blood pressure and obesity, later in life. 

“This contact has long been considered unpleasant and a stressful life event,” Gilbert said of police surveillance. “Lethal policing fosters the shared experience across neighborhood residents. These patterns are structured by race and gender as a result of the criminalization of Black and brown people.”

Not only are Black and Latinx neighborhoods often hyper-surveilled, but officers have been shown to harbor implicit biases against people of color that they themselves are not aware of. 

Ray and colleagues at the University of Maryland were able to analyze the behaviors of police officers through a virtual reality decisionmaking program. The study revealed that officers were more likely to form associations between Black people and weapons than they were with whites. 

“When you hear an officer say, ‘Oh, I thought they had a weapon,’ in their mind they may actually be thinking that,” he said. “This is the way we see Blackness become weaponized, and the way that we see Black bodies become overly criminalized relative to other bodies.” 

That unconscious bias manifests itself in the disproportionate rates of Black people killed by police: Black people are 3.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police when they are not attacking or do not have a weapon. 

Ray said a way to reduce the number of people killed by police could be by restructuring civilian payouts, a sum of money paid to the families of individuals killed by police. In the current system, the money for civilian payouts comes from taxpayer dollars, and not the insurance policies from police departments. 

Requiring police departments to be fiscally responsible for civilian payouts, while refocusing taxpayer money on education and other resources, could help reduce the number of police killings, Ray said. 

For people considering what a reformed police system might look like, panelist Omid Bagheri Garakani, MPH, director of equity and community partnership at JustLead Washington and clinical faculty at the University of Washington School of Public Health, asked us to imagine affluent white neighborhoods. 

“More affluent and whiter communities already do not have a constant police presence that other communities do. And, specifically, I mean Black and brown and business communities, poor and working-class communities,” Garakani said. “They don’t have police doing patrols constantly up and down the main drag in those neighborhoods.” 

He said addressing police violence and the weaponization of Black bodies depends on such solutions such as community-based violence intervention programs that use outreach workers to diffuse potentially violent conflicts.

“Decriminalization, reallocating funds, building new systems of community safety that are community-led and shaped by those most harmed by policing — all of these are interventions that we can work toward.”

Check out the first three webinars in APHA's Advancing Racial Equity series, and use the new companion discussion guide to invoke meaningful conversations about racism and its connection to health inequities in the U.S.

Register for the fourth webinar in the series, which takes place Sept. 29. "Racial Healing for Ourselves, Our Communities and Our Future" will discuss racial healing as essential for dismantling racism and advancing racial equity.