The institutionalized killing of black and brown people in the United States is not a new phenomenon. The government’s role in the overt harming of black bodies goes as far back as slavery, when patrollers (paid and unpaid) stopped enslaved people in public places, entered their quarters without warrant, and assaulted and harmed them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government further sustained public devaluation of black lives through tolerance of lynching and by failing to pass anti-lynching legislation.
Today, this institutionalized killing is illustrated by countless racist police shootings—which should be enough to prioritize police brutality on the public policy agenda. However, as we have seen through the (almost complete) failure on the part of the justice system to indict police officers involved in these murders, institutional action is not being taken to address state violence directed at black and brown people.
Dismantling racism in policing, and in other institutionalized forms, in part rests on the better collection and maintenance of data. National representative data on exposure to various dimensions of police brutality can be linked with individual and population health indicators to paint a clearer picture of the impact of police brutality. It can also provide more insight to causes of racial health inequities and inform the formulation of specific policy interventions. We can and must do better at collecting data.
The effects of historical institutional racial oppression cut across several sectors of contemporary American life: health, criminal justice, civic engagement, education, and the economy. I teach Introduction to Public Health at Lehigh University. When I talk about racial inequities in health, I must frame them in the context of racism. I cannot also talk about forms of contemporary racism, such as police brutality, without implicating slavery and its horrors. Without doubt, students ask questions such as “Why did it take the government so long to abolish slavery?” or “Why was it not until 2005, more than a century after lynching began, that the United States Senate apologized for not passing anti-lynching laws?” or “Why were these laws not passed to begin with?” I typically respond by asking if we are a better society now than we were three centuries. Responses range from listing the benefits of the civil rights movement to framing mass incarceration and police brutality as the “new” forms of state-sanctioned structural racism.
But our collective response to police brutality should help us answer questions about why lynching laws lasted as long as they did. Police brutality, which disproportionately targets and kills black and brown people in America, is modern-day lynching. As with lynching, there are perpetrators, unconcerned onlookers, and active resisters. There is also a government that fails to take comprehensive action. In this piece, I aim to focus on what government can do.
The importance of collecting data
Collect data. Data provide necessary evidence for understanding the scope of the problem and to take informed action. Fortunately, the Bureau of Justice Statistics is leading federal efforts to collect more comprehensive data about arrest-related deaths. While this is a step in the right direction, there are still gaps. For example, there are no government-led efforts that mandate active surveillance and reporting of police-related incidents at local and state levels, whether these incidents lead to death, physical injury, or disability. Real-time data from non-governmental sources such as The Counted and The Washington Post help fill this gap but indicate a lack of federal commitment to active surveillance of police brutality—a social determinant of health that disproportionately harms communities of color.
Data are the bread and butter of public policy. In addition to understanding the scope of police brutality, data are relevant for assessing its impact on health, the economy, and other sectors. My current research seeks to identify the mechanisms through which police brutality affects health. The lack of nationally representative data is a problem. In the absence of these data though, I am conducting a qualitative case study to better understand the extent to which stress and poor mental health among Black people residing in the “inner-city” might be grounded in experiences or anticipation of police intimidation and violence.
Moving from collecting data to implementing solutions
Collecting data is important. But our government institutions must also take responsibility for their past and current role in state-sanctioned public harming of black and brown bodies. Real action at the local, state and federal levels are required. One action step is mandating active surveillance of police actions that dehumanize individuals, such as stop-and-frisk practices. Another is to fund research that seeks to understand consequences of police brutality. A third is to prioritize and finance programs and interventions that specifically reduce police brutality and that dismantle racist systems that oppress communities of color more generally.