Racial violence by law enforcement a public health problem

Philando Castile's fiancée: We had our hands in air
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Story highlights

  • Diamond Reynolds live-streams aftermath of the killing of her fiancé, Philando Castile
  • David Love: For communities that are impacted by police brutality, this is a matter of their very survival

David A. Love (@DavidALove) writes for thegrio.com. He is a writer and human rights activist based in Philadelphia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)The police killing of Philando Castile near Minneapolis on Thursday -- and its aftermath, caught on a cellphone video by his girlfriend -- is yet another reminder of the ongoing challenge of racial violence by law enforcement. But it should also be a reminder of something else: that this violence is a public health issue, one that demands our attention and immediate action.

With each successive fatal shooting of an African-American by law enforcement, the human element gets lost in the shuffle. The video taken by Diamond Reynolds in the aftermath of her boyfriend's shooting is hard to watch. But imagine how hard it must be for Reynolds, who witnessed the killing of a loved one and who now must cope with the trauma of it all.
    David A. Love
    It is hard to imagine how Reynolds managed to stay calm, collected and polite in the face of what she was living through -- a gun pointing in her face, aimed by a clearly stressed out police officer who had presumably just shot a man. And what is to become of her 4-year-old daughter, who was sitting in the back seat of the car as the nightmare unfolded, and who must live with the aftereffects of this unthinkable tragedy for the rest of her life?
    Similarly, one can feel the pain of Cameron Sterling, the 15-year-old son of Alton Sterling, whose father was killed a day earlier by Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police. Sterling, 37, was fatally shot by police while selling CDs outside a convenience store, as he had done for years. The understandably inconsolable weeping of Cameron at a press conference held by the family reveals the traumatic price communities -- particularly communities of color -- ultimately pay through police violence.
    According to The Counted, the database on police killings maintained by The Guardian, 561 people have been killed by the police in 2016, 136 of them black. That gives you a sense of the scale of the problem. And it's why organizations of health care professionals regard police violence as a public health crisis in which police practices create unacknowledged health inequities based on race.
    For example, victims of police abuse, their families and communities suffer from physical and emotional scars, including post-traumatic stress disorder, stress and anxiety as a result of the repetitive acts of racism they face, including excessive force, stop and frisk and other law enforcement activities.
    The American Psychological Association has noted that "race-related stress impacts the physical, psychological and social well-being of African-Americans." Numerous studies bear out that such trauma leaves its mark on the victims of racial violence, with the American Academy of Family Physicians last year calling police excessive force a public health threat, as family physicians throughout the country are treating the PTSD of their patients who suffered from police abuse.
    The Student National Medical Association, meanwhile, recognizes that: "police brutality threatens the physical, emotional, and psychological health of those involved and should be addressed not only as an issue of social reform, but also as one of public health. The American law enforcement community has historically demonstrated unjust scrutiny against African-American and Latino members of society. This scrutiny has, in turn, led to numerous unmerited physical and psychological attacks upon minorities resulting not only in permanent disability, but also the death of innocent law abiding Americans."
    The group adds that police violence and excessive force "ultimately compromises the physical and mental health of victims and their families while ignoring the need for psychological and social intervention and support of law enforcement officers."
    Finally, in 2014, the American Public Health Association issued a statement on the health implications of police violence. The group urged local, state and federal governments to have public health personnel collect, monitor and compile statistics on the incidences and health consequences of police violence. The association also recommended other measures, such as studies by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the health effects of police violence, full transparency including independent community-based review boards to handle police brutality complaints, anti-racism training, reporting by health and mental health professionals of acts of police abuse, training these professionals to identify victim of police brutality, and strict enforcement and punishment when police violate the law.
    The overwhelming level of expert opinion should make it impossible for those who wish to hide their head in the sand to deny the problem of racial violence by law enforcement. Yet too often, they attempt to play a shell game, proclaiming that "blue lives matter" and blaming black protesters for "making an agenda" out of police violence.
    But this should not be a political issue.
    For communities that are impacted by police brutality, this is a matter of their very survival, and of their physical, psychological and emotional well-being. July 13 marks the first anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, 28, who was arrested during an unwarranted traffic stop and died by hanging in a Texas jail cell. That young black women endured unfathomable physical, emotional and psychological anguish and torture. And sadly, she is far from alone in having experienced this.
    The killings this week of black men at the hands of law enforcement remind us that if society does not take police violence seriously as a public health problem, these types of deaths will only continue.