Study Finds Publicized Police Brutality Affects Mental Health

by Martholdy Pierre-Canel ‘21

A highly circulated video on social media shows an incident that occurred on August 27 in which an 11-year-old, black female student at Mesa View Middle School is pinned to the ground. Officer Zachary Christensen of the Farmington Police Department in New Mexico slams the student against a window, then onto the ground as the student screamed, “you’re hurting me!” Officer Christensen repeatedly tells the student to “turn over!” and then “stop resisting!” According to reporting by a local television station, Christensen later said he tried to arrest her because the student “took more milk than she was supposed to,” and threw some on the ground. Reports of police shootings and other violent encounters have been a near constant in the media, including the case of Atatiana Jefferson, who was shot from her bedroom window by a Fort Worth police officer on October 12 as she played a video game with her 8-year-old nephew. There also was the case of Ryan Twyman who was unarmed but shot 34 times on June 19 in the south Los Angeles area neighborhood of Willowbrook. Research has found that such incidents are negatively impacting the mental health of African Americans.

A 2018 study, published in The Lancet, led by a team of researchers from the public health schools of Harvard and Boston University linked data from the Mapping Police Violence database with data from the 2013–15 US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), to identify when BRFSS survey participants reported suffering from poor mental health. In this study, it was shown “when police officers in the United States kill unarmed black people, it damages the mental health of black Americans living in those states. The mental health of white Americans was not similarly affected, the researchers found. Nor were negative health effects associated with police killings of unarmed white Americans or armed black Americans.”

The study illustrates a difference among racial groups in their perception of the police. According to a 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center titled “Why Americans Don’t Fully Trust Many Who Hold Positions of Power and Responsibility,” 72 percent of white Americans say police officers treat racial and ethnic groups equally at least some of the time. By way of comparison, half of Hispanics and just 33 percent of black adults say the same.