Health groups call police brutality a public health issue

Health groups call police brutality a public health issue
© JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images

Several leading health groups are speaking out against police brutality, calling it a public health issue that leads to poorer health outcomes for communities of color, especially during a pandemic.

“Police brutality in the midst of public health crises is not crime-preventive — it creates demoralized conditions in an already strained time,” American Medical Association President Patrice Harris and Board Chair Jesse Ehrenfeld said in a statement.

“Excessive police force is a communal violence that significantly drives unnecessary and costly injury, and premature morbidity and death. Our country — our society — demands more.”

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Thousands of people protested over the weekend over the deaths of black people at the hands of police, including George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died after a police officer kept a knee on the unarmed man's neck for more than eight minutes.

The protests have worried public health experts because large gatherings are conducive to the spread of COVID-19. But experts also note that police brutality and over-policing of communities of color are a public health issue.

“Racism is a longstanding public health crisis that impacts both mental and physical health,” said Ernest J. Grant, president of the American Nurses Association (ANA.)

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this crisis and added to the stress in the black community, which is experiencing higher rates of infection and deaths.”

Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins and an epidemiologist, tweeted Monday she is worried about COVID-19 spreading in crowds.

“But as a public health professional and community member I am also worried about disparities in justice and health,” she said. “Risk mitigation for protestors: masks, distancing, hand sanitizer, eye protection.”

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COVID-19 has had a disproportionate toll on people of color, with black Americans in particular dying at higher rates than whites.

But racism also has negative health impacts. The AMA noted that studies have already found an increased prevalence of police encounters is linked to elevated stress and anxiety levels, increased rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma.

The AMA urged the CDC and other researchers to study the public health effects of physical and verbal violence between police and racially marginalized communities.

Association of American Medical Colleges President David Skorton said Monday “we can no longer be bystanders.”

“The brutal and shocking deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have shaken our nation to its core and once again tragically demonstrated the everyday danger of being black in America,” he said. “Police brutality is a striking demonstration of the legacy racism has had in our society over decades.”

Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United (NNU), the largest nurses union in the U.S., said Monday there is a “common link” between police and white supremacist killings of African Americans and the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic.

“Coupled with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, there is a palpable outrage and frustration after years of inaction that has prompted the protests,” she said.

“Instead of addressing the persistent thread of racism, and working for transformative change to policing practices and the health, economic, and political crisis that harms African Americans and other communities of color in far greater numbers, they see inaction, evasion of responsibility, and outright blaming of those most harmed by these policies.”