The following article was written on July 6, 2016 as a writing sample for a research position I applied for. When I heard about the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and Philando Castille in St. Paul, MN I just felt the need to start doing something about it.
I’ve written/talked about my ordeal 6 years ago with Washington, D.C. police officers, but I never really truly expressed what came after that. Losing my career, all the fear, anxiety, depression…alcohol. But I’m not dead. I’m not a name on a t-shirt and my loved ones can still put their arms around me. I take that as the will of God who gave me a job to do and I’m going to do it.
This is the beginning of my contribution to help people — all people whether black, brown or white to change the system of violence in law enforcement. I may not see it happen in my lifetime, but for the sake of my children and their children I’m damn sure going to try.
Read the article, comment and share with as many people as you can. Then contact me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/winton.wedderburn) if you want to help.
There is an established history of framing violence as an issue to be addressed from a population health perspective, however, to date there exists very little research specifically characterizing police violence as such. In 1979, the United States Surgeon General’s report, Healthy People, identified violence as as one of the 15 areas the nation must address regarding health promotion and disease prevention. Less than 20 years later in 1996, the World Health Assembly (decision making body of the World Health Organization) adopted Resolution WHA49.25 which declared violence a “leading worldwide public health problem” (1). In their 2002 World Report on Violence and Health, the WHO, again recognized attitudes and societal norms that support the use of excessive force by police against citizens as a form of violence (2).
The aim of this research project is to provide further evidence to support previous findings that police violence should be looked at as a public health issue. Researchers around the world have documented health problems associated with the WHO’s four domains of violence; physical, sexual, psychological and neglectful (2, 10, 11), but the impact of police violence has gone largely unstudied. What has been studied shows there is an urgent need to address this disparity. In Kenya police violence is the leading cause of assault related ear damage(12), it is the major source of violence among patients in Chilean clinics(13) and is the principal cause of spinal cord injuries in wheelchair bound residents of Soweto, South Africa(14). Here in the US through the power social media we have witnessed a spree of police killings of unarmed Americans.
Reaching consensus on the characterization of police violence as a threat to public health and safety will allow for the issue to be addressed through the three levels of prevention; the basic public health concept of disease prevention. The concept states that there are three levels of preventing injury or illness based on the temporal nature of the injury or illness (3):
In order for health conditions or problems in society to be considered public health issues, four criteria must be met.
First, the “disease” has to affect many people; there must be a recent increase in incidence, and new cases of the “disease” will likely increase in the future. Often this is expressed in terms of mortality and morbidity, quality of life, and cost.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a department of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports that between 2003 and 2013 the number of deaths per 100,000 due to law enforcement officers by any means (firearm or otherwise) was 116 (approx. 111,000 people); deaths by firearm was 112 (approx. 107,000 people) in 7 states (VA, SC, OR, NJ, MA, MD, AK) (4). This suggests that police violence meets the mortality and morbidity criteria, but it is difficult to show that the incidence has increased recently or that it will increase in the future since data on police killings is notoriously incomplete or non-existent (5). Quality of life is also affected by violence in many ways including, permanent injury, loss of faculties, post traumatic stress disorder and the negative impact of what death or injury has on the family unit. As for the cost of police violence, the Wall Street Journal reports that in 10 cities with the largest police departments $248 million was paid to settle court judgement and police-misconduct cases; an increase of 48% in 2010 (6).
The second is that the problem has to be distributed unfairly and not affect all people in the same manner; it would typically affect minorities and disadvantaged individuals to a greater extent. Between January and May of 2015 it was estimated that 37.4% of the U.S. population was comprised of non-white Americans, yet almost half (46.6%) of all people killed by police were minorities; of those minorities killed by police 62.7% were unarmed (7).
Third, there must be evidence that upstream preventive strategies — that is, strategies that target economic, political, and environmental factors — can substantially reduce the burden of police violence. The fourth and last criterion is that these preventative strategies should already be in place (8, 9). At this time, strategies designed specifically to decrease police violence have not been identified. There are several articles that cover interventions designed to affect other types of interpersonal violence such as youth and intimate partner violence that can provide insight into what should be done about police violence, specifically.
Once firmly established and universally accepted as a true public health issue under these criteria, the need for strategic public health approaches to address police violence are undeniable. To begin, standardized diagnostic criteria will be needed to properly identify the potential for police violence as well as aid in public health surveillance. There is also a need to create national ongoing surveillance systems that use standardized methods to monitor trends over time and assist in setting priorities. The public health community and other interested organizations must also raise awareness of police violence and its impact on population health among the general public, health care providers, policy makers, and the scientific community. Additionally, any intervention that addresses the issue of police violence from a public health standpoint needs to be translated in order to help policy makers and researchers understand how they are implemented, explore barriers to effective implementation and strategize to overcome those barriers.