The Impact of Police Violence is Far Reaching and Long Lasting

Last week I, as many others, looked for every update that could be found about Erica Garner. Horrified at the possibility of police violence claiming yet another victim. Hopeful that she would pull through. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. At 27, a woman who had to watch her father get choked to death on TV just 3 short years ago–who had to constantly relive that trauma amplified by the media and played on repeat and be subject to the opinion of every fool who wanted to explain why he [Eric] deserved his fate, who had to endure police harassment, community harassment, and online harassment, who had to continue living in a city where her father’s murderer not only got away with it, but kept his job AND got a raise–had a heart attack. Is it any wonder given all that she went through that her body couldn’t continue on?

I have so many thoughts that would take too long to organize into anything coherent and succinct, but luckily other people have been able to put in writing what I cannot at this time. I will say this…as public health researchers, we have to stop dancing around this topic. Police violence is what I chose to focus my research on, or maybe it chose me. I don’t have the privilege of engaging with this work without it taking an emotional toll on me because it’s not something I can distance myself from like with worms or preventing tropical diseases or maternal health in a country halfway around the world, or is it something that has either politically neutral connotations or tangible solutions like with childhood obesity or STI prevention. Not to say that any topic in public health/social sciences is more important than another, or that finding viable solutions is in anyway easy or easier or doesn’t get political pushback from someone. But we can’t even really talk about police violence in an intelligent way, first and foremost, because we HAVE NO DATA! Not zero data, but not the kind of data and information that we have for all of these other issues. And not only that, we’re not even really trying to find solutions to getting surveillance systems that can be used to really do a good investigation.

All of us are out here using The Guardian’s dataset (The Counted) or relying on other databases collected by volunteers who are passionate about this topic who mine newspaper articles for their information. We already know the FBI and CDC information is useless and severely undercounted. All of us are out here piecemealing data sets, coming up with our own investigations, working in this de-centralized and largely ineffective manner. Why? It’s a catch-22: you can’t get people to take seriously that there’s a problem until you show them numbers, and you can’t get accurate numbers because there’s so much resistance to transparent and efficient reporting.

At the very least, I need us [researchers] to stop writing articles on this topic that has any statement to the effect of how “relatively rare police shootings are.” It’s diminishing and it’s an abandonment of your responsibility. We study so many diseases and ailments that are “relatively rare,” because if they’re causing excess death, excess morbidity, and are PREVENTABLE, then they’re worth investing our time and energy into. How do you even make a statement about its relative rareness when we know we don’t have accurate data?

More importantly, our crap data on police violence isn’t just about how many people were killed (which is about 1,200 every year, at least). It’s about the people who are physically injured and/or disabled, it’s about the sexual violence–which we really don’t talk about, it’s about the harassment and humiliation and disrespect, it’s about the psychological trauma, it’s about the neglect. And when you take all of that into account, it’s not longer a relatively rare event. It’s ubiquitous, and it’s inequitably distributed among communities of color, immigrant communities, and the LGBTQIA+ community.

It doesn’t just harm the victim of the violence, their entire family and community is harmed as well, ESPECIALLY if they try to seek out justice in this country. We’ve known for years how violence and trauma experiences of children literally changes their DNA, makes them more prone to chronic disease, engaging in risky health behaviors, impaired social/emotional development, and early death. It also creates epigenetic changes, meaning it changes how your genes express themselves, and those changes can be inherited across generations. The trauma experienced by one person can be passed onto their grandchildren. Intergenerational trauma. The murder of Eric Garner most certainly precipitated the untimely death of Erica Garner, and her death is going to have an impact down to her very young children and across to her siblings and other family members. And it will continue on.

We can sit around and scratch our heads in wonderment about how to solve racial health disparities/health inequities/excess Black morbidity & death, but if we’re not talking about racism–interpersonal AND structural AND institutional–then we’re wasting our time.

I guess I did have words after all. But for more words, read this article by Kashana Cauley, Erica Garner and How America Destroys Black Families.

One way to describe Erica Garner’s last few years is to say she spent them fighting against police brutality. Another way is to say she fought against the forced separation and destruction of black families by the state. And that fight may have killed her, just as it might have killed the mother of Kalief Browder, a young man who had been unjustly accused of a minor crime and sent to Rikers Island, where he spent two horrific years in solitary confinement.

“They do these things for you to give up,” Erica Garner said in an interview last month. “Look at Kalief Browder’s mother. She died of a broken heart because she kept fighting for her son.” She added, “I’m struggling right now, with the stress and everything.”

“The system,” she said, “beats you down to where you can’t win.”

The Garner family continues to be disrespected. Officer Pantaleo is still employed by the New York Police Department. Eric Garner’s death was ruled a homicide, but it increasingly looks like one of those homicides no one committed. Similar to the Immaculate Conception, which meant Mary was free of original sin, apparently we are also supposed to believe that deaths like Eric Garner’s are immaculate executions, just as free of sin.

If there is no sin in killing Eric Garner, no crime, then black families like the Garners can be destroyed without anyone having to answer for it.

Also read this: Slow death: Is the trauma of police violence killing black women?