Police violence against Black people in the US often leads to extensive media coverage. David Curtis at the University of Utah and his colleagues wanted to understand how the mental health of Black individuals was affected after such events. The team combined a database of US police killings with Google Trends data to identify 47 high-profile incidents of police killing Black individuals or subsequent legal decisions that occurred between 2013 and 2017, including the killing of Michael Brown. These comprised the reporting of 38 police killings of Black individuals, and coverage of about nine legal decisions not to convict officers involved in some of those killings. The team also looked at the reporting of two convicted murderers with links to white supremacy for a total of 49 events.
I don't know if my struggle with anxiety began before or after a police officer shouted "Keep your hands where I can see them!" as he pulled alongside my parked car. I only know that the following months were filled with sleepless nights, including many spent replaying every sound from the incident: the whoop of the siren--shrieking as it spun in red flashes; the slam of the police car door as the officer approached my window; and the bark of his criminalizing question, "What are you doing in this neighborhood?" Just when I thought my restless routine was done after so many weeks, I'd close my eyes and see four angry furrows etched into the officer's forehead. Then, I'd feel sweat drip down mine as I recalled the way his fingers trailed his belt--inching closer to his pistol grip as he waited for my trembling reply: "I live here, officer. I live right across the street."
Racial trauma is what happens when a Black man like Jacob Blake is shot seven times in the back by a police officer. It's how a Black person's heart and mind may seize upon seeing the video of the recent attack in Kenosha, Wisconsin, or reading about it in the news. They may feel increasingly jittery, exhausted, or numb, fearful they or a loved one will meet the same fate. These psychological wounds are both direct and vicarious: Someone who experiences racism or racially-motivated violence suffers, as do those who bear witness to such harm. The concept of racial trauma, or race-based stress, is decades old but has emerged as a mainstream idea in the months since George Floyd's death.
When someone in the U.S. is killed by a police officer, there's no guarantee that their death will be recorded as such. This reality is no surprise to the activists, many of them Black, Latino, and Indigenous, who've said for years that their loved ones, friends, and neighbors are killed by police officers yet officials don't accurately report their cause of death. Instead, the fatality might be attributed to causes like heart disease or sickle cell trait. Sometimes coroners or medical examiners are embedded in police departments and may be under pressure to list a cause other than police violence. In other cases, they fail to properly cite the cause of death because of poor standards or training.
Giving out parking tickets in New York does not usually inspire goodwill. So several years ago, Elizabeth Brondolo, a psychologist at St. John's University, came to counsel the city's traffic agents, most of whom were African-American. "We could do standard behavior therapy things about being called a'fat pig' or'get a real job,'" says Brondolo. Her team ran through relaxation exercises and skits, which usually worked. "But the racial insults involved so much despair that we couldn't do the same kind of intervention."