George Floyd: Framing police brutality through the lens of an emergent public health crisis

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Those who knew George remembered him as “a big man with a heart to match” and a “good friend,” “good person,” and someone who “took care of people.”

Tragically, George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020.

You may have already seen the heartstrings-shredding video showing his excruciatingly slow and torturously savage homicide. As George struggled in his final moments to simply breathe while begging for his life, and onlookers recording the incident upbraided the police officers’ cruel, inhumane, and criminal handling of his body (one of whom, named Derek Chauvin, pinned George down by the neck with his knee for 9 minutes until George Floyd’s breath finally became air), a devastatingly jarring but painfully clear epiphany struck me: police brutality and the killings police commit, and the legal structures, government institutions, and legislative systems that not only exculpate guilty police officers time after time in this country, but also allow the loss of black lives to continue is nothing short of a public health crisis—no, a public health emergency.

Framing police brutality through the lens of an emergent public health crisis is not to incite popular hysteria towards or hyperbolize the nature of police iniquity. No, I am unequivocally subsuming the loss of black lives at the hands of police officers, and more broadly law enforcement, under the umbrella of a public health emergency as a matter of unassailable truth. We desperately need to address this malignant cancer within our law enforcement system that has metastasized all over the country with regards to police engagement with black bodies.

Perhaps by understanding that police brutality is a public health emergency, members of the entire health care team can come together, realize our immeasurable power, and leverage our voices, our minds, and our hearts to compel an inflection point in this country, and deliver a bolus, an infusion of conscience into a morally bankrupt police force in America that will ultimately challenge and change the way we have been socialized to view and passively accept the chronic execrable behaviors of police officers, law enforcement, and legal apparatuses in this nation. The policing system needs to be revisited, reassessed, reimagined, and reinvented because an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.

There is a point during George Floyd’s arrest video where an officer on the sidelines says, “This is why you don’t do drugs, kids” to those excoriating Chauvin’s kneeling on George’s neck.

To that officer’s smugly patronizing suggestion, I say, “No. This is why drugs need to be legalized.” And we, the champions of the medical profession, must be the vanguards for this legalization. We can start by recognizing an incontrovertible reality: those who do drugs are victims and not villains.

The idea that one’s participation in using drugs or engagement in anything drug-related (e.g., buying or selling) is entirely or even largely the fault of the individual and a moral failing on their part for having “made poor choices” in life and is, therefore, a “bad person” that “deserves punishment and consequences” is one of the greatest canards that has ever been foisted upon the human mind and the consciousness of the American people. It is predicated on the spurious, reductive, and facile notion that the underpinnings for what leads individuals to insidious capture by nefarious narcotic forces hinges solely upon their volitional will and nothing else (e.g., mental illness, lack of access to health care, childhood trauma, financial adversity, widespread lack of job opportunities, absence of mentors/role models, paucity of infrastructural social support, obstacles in educational advancement, and more).

And because these factors disproportionately affect people of color and those of lower socio-economic income, these very same disenfranchised and disempowered individuals who need our love, compassion, and empathy the most are subject to a precariously biased perceptual framework and an inherently uncharitable appraisal of their perceived human worth and humanity; this results in the limitlessly dangerous view that is ubiquitously weaponized by police (and those who choose their side) of “if they had just exercised their will differently, they would not be in this situation” being thrusted upon them. So long as drugs remain criminalized in a prejudicial, discriminatory system of justice, we will never see equity with regards to arrests, incarceration, and deaths at the hands of police officers, and more broadly, in the face of law.

Furthermore, we need greater structural accountability. In medicine, there have been advancements towards linking patient outcomes with physician benefits/pay. In this way, the proactive pursuit towards better patient health is incentivized and poor patient health outcomes become deterred. While imperfect, I often think about how the medical community can advocate for similar approaches to be adopted by police where police officers and police departments become greatly incentivized to have outcomes where excessive force and lethal force are not inappropriately used and to punish severely for when they are. Perhaps we can also incentivize fellow police officers and those in administrative roles to vigilantly hold each other accountable by having one officer’s misconduct negatively impact the team or department in a “collective consequences” manner.

Finally, we should leverage the knowledge and wisdom of medical professionals to newly define, delineate, and determine actions that would be considered excessive force or lethal force and thus illegal or unjustified in the handling of suspects in an arrest, so that a human pinned to the ground with a knee pressed against their neck for 9 minutes will forever be an incontestably criminal act of a former time.

In medicine, there’s talk about eradicating “health disparities” and “health inequity” all the time. However, so long as we do not treat police brutality as a public health emergency deserving the immediate urgency of a patient having a stroke, the emotional rawness of having to deliver the news of a patient’s death to their loved ones, and the scorching outrage of combatting a deftly inimical force constantly trying to undermine your role in protecting the patients you serve, health disparities and health inequity are here to stay.

Jay Wong is a medical student. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Yale University. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Jay Wong, and on Twitter @JayWongMedicine.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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