Police Shootings of Black Males Has Been Deemed A "Public Health Problem"

December 22, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Young people carrying hand-painted signs in a rally against police brutality.
Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue (CC by SA 2.0)

Black men are 21 times more likely than white men to be killed by a police officer.

In the wake of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, police brutality has sparked outrage across the United States and inspired peaceful protests in all of the major cities that have been affected.

The shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. (a suburb of Saint Louis) was one of the first incidents to draw mass media attention and raise public awareness of the injustice. Now, a professor at Saint Louis University has written a paper on just how bad the problem is.

A Public Health Problem

According to the research of Keon Gilbert, assistant professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University's College for Public Health and Social Justice, the number one cause of death among black males between the ages of 15 and 35 is homicide.

Further, black males are 21 times more likely than white males to be killed by a police officer, and high-income blacks are just as likely as low-income blacks to be killed by police officers. The average life expectancy of black men in the US is also seven years lower than women of all races and men of all other groups aside from Native Americans.

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The police officers who kill unarmed black men often claim to have felt threatened or feared for their lives for various reasons, and this in turn creates the concept of “justifiable homicide,” as Gilbert puts it.

"Focusing on 'justifiable homicides' contributes to an understanding of the persistent lower life expectancy of black males and the leading causes of death that feed these trends," Gilbert says.

Proposal for Change

In his paper, Gilbert outlines a number of actions that should be taken in order to implement policy change and hopefully play a role in reducing the problem. The steps mentioned in Gilbert’s research are low-cost, and he calls for immediate action in order to address the “public health problem.”

First, he says that data must be collected and analyzed to gain a better understanding of the problem rather than brushing it off as “justifiable homicide.”

"Classifying a death as a 'justifiable homicide' does not provide the qualitative information to properly understand the incident,” Gilbert said in a press release. “We need data about the threshold law enforcement officers employ when deciding when and how to use violent force against a citizen. Perceptions of fear as a viable defense need to be re-evaluated."

Gilbert notes that “stop and frisk” laws are often influenced by racial biases, and that “stand your ground” laws should also be reevaluated. "Police and peace officers need to be retrained to understand their own racial biases and formulate more equitable approaches to the treatment of individuals from groups they have not encountered during their upbringing," Gilbert said.

Body cameras should also be required. Gilbert says the video and audio recordings of violent incidents will allow for more objectivity in understanding how and why a situation escalated  the way it did. He says body cameras “give a voice to the dead” and also “increase accountability and transparency between police officers and the community.”

Gilbert also thinks it’s important to provide mental and preventive health services to the communities that are plagued with high levels of violence and policing. These areas are often labeled as “high-crime areas,” and they become subject to higher rates of poverty, lower employment and earning opportunities, and systemic social biases that “seal the fate and fortune of many local residents,” according to Gilbert.

There’s no easy solution to the problem, especially considering the issue may be deeply rooted in improper training or innate racial biases. But for any progress to be made, society has to take the necessary steps to implement policy change.

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