Behavioral Health
Article

The impact of policing on law enforcement mental health

August 24, 2020
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The American Public Health Association has designated police violence as a public health crisis. It disproportionately impacts Black Americans, but especially unarmed Black Americans. In 2015, Black Americans accounted for 26.5 percent of those people who were killed by police, even though they only make up 13.2 percent of the population.[1] The Journal of the National Medical Association found that armed Black people were shot at a rate 3.1 times that of armed white people. The rate of unarmed Black people shot by police was even higher at a rate 4.5 times than that of unarmed white people between 2013 and 2015.[2] According to researchers structural racism within states also appeared to be connected to police killings of unarmed Black people. Structural racism was determined state by state by using indicators like average family income, educational attainment gaps, and residential segregation. States with higher measures of structural racism had higher rates of police killings of unarmed Black individuals.[3]

 In 2015, Black Americans accounted for 26.5 percent of those people who were killed by police, even though they only make up 13.2 percent of the population.

In the wake of increased awareness of police violence all over the country, medical associations and other groups have released statements condemning and calling for the end of police violence and racism. These include: the American Medical Association (AMA), the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (ACP), and the American Public Health Association (APHA). Each organization cites the harmful health effects of racism and/or police violence, with the AMA overtly connecting police violence and racism to negative mental health effects.[4]  

Mental health consequences of police violence go beyond immediate victims. We’ve written recently about negative effects of police violence on the mental health of Black people overall. In addition, the prevalent “warrior mentality” in the police force has been found to negatively affect the mental health of police officers.[5] Brookings hosted a panel discussion on obstacles and solutions to creating reform in the culture of American policing. According to Captain Joe Perez, president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association, police training encourages officers to see the community as the enemy, and to focus on their own safety.[6] He also stated that officers are more likely to gain recognition within the department when they make arrests and use force than when they build relationship with community members.[7]

 States with higher measures of structural racism had higher rates of police killings of unarmed Black individuals.

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and NBC New York surveyed almost 8,000 active and retired officers across the U.S. about the problems and stress they experience as a result of their profession. Almost 80 percent of those surveyed reported that they experienced stress that even effective coping strategies could not alleviate.[8] Additionally, 69 percent said that the stress caused persistent emotional issues and effects including suicidal thoughts; problems with anger; sleeping; family/relationships; substance abuse; and recurring memories of events.[9] Unfortunately, officers often don’t seek emotional or behavioral support. Out of the respondents, 90 percent said that they think there is a stigma in law enforcement around seeking therapy and it may be perceived as officers being seen as “weak or unfit for duty.” Fewer than 20 percent of respondents reported that they actually utilized services offered by their employer.[10]

 Equity, equality and accountability of all American systems, and police departments in particular, needs to be the standard.

Police violence and the toxic culture of American policing have disproportionate effects on Black Americans, and negatively affects everyone: victims, bystanders and police officers. The current system discourages transparency, trust and accountability with the general public, especially those in minority communities. In addition, police officers’ thinking and judgment are negatively affected when mental health is compromised. Surveys show too often the necessary measures to maintain emotional and behavioral health are stigmatized within public safety systems. In order to dismantle the structural racism built into the system of policing, policing must be viewed through a public health lens. Equity, equality and accountability of all American systems, and police departments in particular, needs to be the standard. Protecting and serving with fairness and objectivity is extraordinarily difficult in our current law enforcement system, especially when many officers suffer from poor and untreated mental health conditions. We must begin to examine police violence through a public health lens for the wellbeing of citizens, officers and communities everywhere.  

[1] Brown et. al. Evidence brief: Health equity implications of police violence. https://www.med.unc.edu/cher/evidence-brief-health-equity-implications-police-violence/  

[2] Mesic et. al. The relationship between structural racism and black-white disparities in fatal police shootings at the state level. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0027968417303206  

[3] Ibid.  

[4] American Medical Association. Police brutality must stop. https://www.ama-assn.org/about/leadership/police-brutality-must-stop  

[5] Brookings. Highlights: Improving police culture in America. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2019/11/04/highlights-improving-police-culture-in-america/  

[6] Ibid.  

[7] Ibid.  

[8] Fraternal Order of Police. Report on FOP/NBC survey of police officer mental and behavioral health. https://www.fop.net/CmsDocument/Doc/OfficerWellnessSurvey.pdf  

[9] Ibid.  

[10] Ibid.

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