Last Tuesday, a police officer in a Pittsburgh suburb shot and killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose. The black teenager was unarmed and cell phone footage footage shows that he was fleeing the police officer when he was shot. The devastating effects of this incident will ripple far beyond Allegheny County and according to a new study, it will be felt widely.
In the study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, and Harvard examined the mental health effect on black Americans when there is a police killing of an unarmed black person in their own state. The results show that following this kind of killing, black Americans experience stress that is equivalent to living with a chronic illness.
Exposure to traumatic events in childhood and youth — known as adverse childhood experiences —are one of the best predictors of disease. The more adverse childhood experiences, the higher the risk of smoking, drug addiction, obesity and other diseases. As we age, the impact of stressful events continues to harm. Racism-induced stress in adults has been linked to diseases from hypertension to breast cancer.
Other studies show that being stopped by police, mainly when the stop is perceived as unfair, causes stress among young men who are stopped.
Further, living in a neighborhood in which police frisk and use force during stops — neighborhoods that tend to be predominantly black — has also been associated with psychological distress.
Now we know that the effect goes beyond the person stopped or their neighbors, and impacts the entire state.
There are two main conclusions from these findings.
The first is that the we must think of police-involved shootings as a public health issue that claims mortality far larger than the already large number of people who directly die during interactions with police.
The second is that Philadelphia must continue its effort toward becoming a trauma-informed city. Philadelphia is already considered a leader in this area but there is more work to be done. A trauma-informed city is one that creates resilience among communities, fosters public spaces as therapeutic outlets, and empowers growth for all.
Programs like the Philadelphia Mural Arts’ Porch Light program, which brings together artists and members of the community to work on a mural project together with an emphasis on community health and trauma, live up to the goals of addressing community trauma. Yale Researchers evaluated the program and found that it benefited not only the participants but also the community at large. Other examples include the Forensic Peer Specialist Initiative that responds to behavioral health needs of people involved in the criminal justice and the Crisis Intervention Team that trains police officers in deescalation and community collaboration.
Many Philadelphians of color are traumatized. Living in the poorest large city in America creates chronic stress; that stress is made worse by police killing an unarmed black person in our commonwealth.
Health officials already recognize that gun violence is a critical public health issue; this new study demands that we recognize that even when police are wielding the guns, the health repercussions are enormous for whole communities.