Studies Confirm Physical and Mental Toll of Policing on Black Youth

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Two studies released today provide more evidence of the physical and mental harm that U.S. policing tactics have on racial and ethnic minority youth, especially Black youth.

In a systematic review, researchers analyzed 29 qualitative and quantitative studies on policing and youth health. They found a clear association between police presence and adverse mental and physical health outcomes among Black youth.

Specifically, their review highlights the toll on emotional and mental health of Black youth (including sadness, anger, fear, externalizing behaviors and feeling unsafe), risky behaviors and substance use associated with police presence.

This study “fills a critical gap in the literature and highlights the need for additional, rigorous prospective research assessing the association between police exposure and health among Black youth, who are disproportionately exposed to police interactions,” Dr. Monique Jindal and colleagues from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, write in JAMA Pediatrics.

In the other study, also in JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Kriszta Farkas and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed injuries to children and adolescents by police using statewide emergency department and hospital data from 2005 and 2017.

They found that California’s Black youth suffer a “substantially” greater burden of injuries perpetrated by law enforcement than youth of other races and ethnicities.

“This is consistent with evidence that police violence is a pathway through which structural racism operates in young people’s lives, primarily impacting racially minoritized youth and contributing to health inequities,” the researchers write.

The data also reveal a “unique impact on Black girls, reflecting literature on how Black girls are more likely than white girls to be adultified – that is, perceived as older than they are, less innocent, and in need of less protection – with serious repercussions for more aggressive legal system targeting,” Dr. Farkas and colleagues report.

The findings from this study document “stark racial inequities in police violence among youth, with the highest rates of injuries among Black boys and Black girls, and racial inequities that were even wider at younger ages,” Dr. Farkas added in email to Reuters Health.

“Findings from this study emphasize that experiences of and inequities in hospital-treated injuries caused by law enforcement start at an early age, pointing to an important role that pediatricians and other clinicians have in documenting these incidents, providing appropriate and compassionate care, and advocating for structural change,” Dr. Farkas added.

The authors of a linked editorial note that, in the year since George Floyd died on May 25, 2020, at least 229 more Black people have lost their lives at the hands of police.

“Indeed, the system of policing in the US must be understood as a chronic and continuous injury to the body, mind, soul, and overall well-being of Black and Hispanica and Latinx bodies,” write Dr. Nia Heard-Garris of Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and co-authors.

“From historical slave patrols and the enforcement of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws to the more recent War on Drugs and ‘stop and frisk,’ police violence is one of the oldest forms of structural racism in the US,” they note.

These two studies offer “compelling evidence of the impact of police violence among racial and ethnic minority groups on the health and well-being of Black and Hispanic and Latinx youth when they are exposed to police,” Dr. Heard-Garris and co-authors add.

They note that the problem extends from neighborhoods to hospitals, as “police officers and, thus, policing tactics, including the use of K-9 dog units, have been invited within the walls of health care institutions and their presence has become normalized.”

“As neighborhood policing continues to be the subject of scrutiny, so should policing within hospitals, especially those serving children and youth. The exposure to police violence has been associated with poor mental health, physical health, and psychosocial outcomes for children and youth. Health care institutions should be places of healing and safety. However, the presence of police within health care systems is in direct violation with these principles,” the editorial writers say.

“As we call for communities to reimagine public safety, there is also a need to reimagine hospital safety and the role of police forces, particularly armed forces, in health care settings, which should be a therapeutic environment and safe haven for all populations. This means no longer prioritizing our own sense of safety and security over the safety of the children and families we serve,” they conclude.

SOURCE: JAMA Pediatrics, online September 7, 2021.

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