Fatal police encounters can engender PTSD in non-white communities and forever impact interactions with police. In the last few years, we have witnessed in horror the erosion of trust between public servants charged to protect the community and the non-white communities they serve. The killing of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles compounded the horror, as their violent deaths were witnessed by their young children, spouses and, for Philando, social media. This trauma and similar events may result in symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder including nightmares, flashbacks, and hyperarousal. We call for physicians and law enforcement to work collaboratively towards ending the cycle of negative police interactions and the resulting detrimental health effects.
Philando Castile was shot by police four times and died at the scene after informing officers that he had a legally concealed firearm. His girlfriend live streamed the incident on Facebook while her four year-old daughter watched from the backseat of the car. Charleena Lyles of Seattle, Washington, a single mother with a known mental health diagnosis, was killed by police in her own home after calling for assistance with an attempted robbery. Her death was witnessed by her children. How do these events impact a family or community?
Research has shown that exposure to physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse or other traumatic events leads to a higher prevalence of alcoholism, illicit drug use, diabetes, emphysema, and heart disease as compared to the general population. We can all agree that the children of both Philando and Charleena Lyles, although not shot themselves, experienced trauma as a result. These children are at significant risk of developing symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder. This risk also extends to community members of color, who were traumatized by viewing the death of Philando Castille repeatedly on social media, yet who must also manage their emotions in future encounters with law enforcement.
Due to unconscious racial bias against non-white people, police may overreact to non-threatening behaviors and language. Citizens and police officers with PTSD commonly react with hypervigilance, increased arousal, irritability, and an exaggerated startle response. The combination of traumatized citizens and traumatized, racially biased police can easily result in major miscommunications which, in turn, can lead to more fatalities. Unless we commit to finding appropriate preventative strategies, we risk repeating the cycle of negative interactions with police.
We must recognize the horrible tragedy directly experienced by the victim’s loved ones during these traumatic events.We must be cognizant of the implications these events have for an entire demographic that fears for similar experiences. Most importantly, we must ensure that the affected families and communities have access to appropriate programs to manage their grief and trauma. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be effective at minimizing immediate negative reactions to trauma and preventing future illnesses that may develop.
We must also endeavor to prevent such events from occurring the future. Law enforcement agencies should avail themselves of tactics proven to reduce such traumatic events such as implicit bias training, diversion tactics, and the use of embedded mental health workers during selected encounters with the public. The Memphis Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) model is one example. The program provides law enforcement officers with 40 hours of training provided by mental health clinicians, consumer and family advocates, and police trainers. Studies found that CIT officers used force in only 15 percent of encounters rated as high violence risk, and when they did use force, they generally relied on low-lethality methods. The CIT program, to date, has reduced arrests and increased safety and diversion to mental health services.
One may argue that it is not the responsibility of law enforcement to find a solution. However, traumatized, hypervigilant citizens are a danger to self, community and the police, so it is truly in everyone’s best interest to employ diverse solutions to end this cycle of traumatic police encounters.
To end this cycle, we must reframe the perspective of traumatic police interactions and adapt a therapeutic approach, with both prevention and treatment. To prevent, we must change the way we train our police. To treat, we must ensure that those who have had and/or witnessed traumatic encounters receive the support they need. By taking these steps, we hope to interrupt this vicious cycle of trauma, and restore the trust in law enforcement that these communities have lost.
Elizabeth Parris is the assistant director and Marshall Fleurant is a member, respectively, Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform (PfCJR)-Mental Health Task Force.
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