Written by Bill Jordan, MD, MPH, President-Elect, National Physicians Alliance
Today is Human Rights Day, a good time to renew our fight for the equal rights of all our family, friends, and neighbors. The recent deaths of black men at the hands of police remind us how much work still needs to be done.
My heart goes out to the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice. These recent tragedies have special meaning for me. I lost my father-in-law last year at the hands of police, when they came to the wrong house responding to a burglar alarm. I won’t pretend to know how the families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown feel. But I was in anguish when the grand jury blocked my father-in-law’s case from going to trial. I can’t imagine how the mother of Tamir Rice feels. My own son is too young to understand what happened to his grandfather. I wonder what parents of black kids in Cleveland tell their children as they leave the house each morning.
As a family doctor living and working in Harlem and the Bronx over the last 10 years, I know first-hand the toll that guns take on communities of color in poor neighborhoods. Some of my older patients still have post-traumatic stress (PTSD) from gun violence decades ago. My younger patients come to see me in clinic fresh from funerals of friends or family lost to gun violence.
As a public health doctor, I know that black men and boys are more often the victims of both violence and police violence. Last decade, black people were the victim of homicide 6 times as often as white people.1 Black people were killed by police 2 times as often as white people (it may be as bad as 4 times as often).2
Broadly, we need to provide better child care, school, work, and health care options for communities of color. We also need to short circuit the school-to-prison pipeline3 that finds kids and adults of color punished while their white neighbors are pardoned for the same offenses. Many programs reduce violence in communities, most often by working with children and families. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnership, the Oregon Model of Parent Management Training, Multisystemic Therapy, Lifeskills Training, Functional Family Therapy, Positive Action, and Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) are models.4 School-based programs to reduce violence work. Moving kids into the adult justice system does not.5 Preschool enrichment programs work. Alcohol and firearm regulations work.6
Resources pouring into police departments include decommissioned military weapons. We need to ask ourselves if police departments really need this equipment, even with proper training. In 2012, at least 409 Americans were killed by police with a gun. British police killed one person with a gun in the same year, and British police only fired their weapons 3 times in 2012.7 Guns are rare in Britain, both among criminals and police. In the U.S., we are trapped in an arms race that costs us lives and money. This money should be instead poured into effective community policing programs like CeaseFire. This program reduced homicides by up to 73 percent in Chicago neighborhoods.8
We rely on the police to protect us, and we are thankful for those willing to do this dangerous work. Most police officers are pillars of the community. However, police departments are failing to identify problem cops before tragedies happen. And these tragedies mostly befall our black and brown neighbors in poor communities.
New York is no different than other cities, with 5% of cops accounting for 40% of the police department’s “resisting arrest” charges.9 These cops are more likely to escalate petty disputes into deadly encounters. Cops with these records should be a special focus for police departments that commit to protecting everyone equally.
Updated policies on arrest procedures and better training may make a difference. However, a change in police department culture is needed to prevent use of dangerous procedures specifically in communities of color. Sometimes federal intervention is needed to make this change. Choke holds are banned in the New York Police Department, but they are still used. Guidelines are ignored about turning people on their side or having them sit up as soon as they are cuffed, to prevent cutting off air.10
Body cameras for police may help. Michael Brown’s family has called for them, and both President Obama and Mayor de Blasio have moved forward on this. I know from my own experience that the recording devices can be lost before they make it to the evidence room. And as we saw in the case of Eric Garner, video does not guarantee a case will go to trial. One small city in California saw an 88% decline in complaints filed against officers, and a 60% reduction in use of force by police.11
Finally, we need to look at how the justice system handles police cases. The grand jury system doesn’t work for police cases. Grand juries rarely move deadly shootings by police to trial.12 Most other people committing the act would have their guilt or innocence decided in a trial. There are other options, including open preliminary hearings, grand juries formed outside community of the incident, and independent investigations pursued immediately.13
It is important for all of us to help solve this problem, together. Some people are working on getting better information from the public on the scope of the problem. Others are coming up with good ways to share the data. Others are building on this information, and creating communities to push for change.
We know we have a problem, and we know many of the ways to solve it. Health depends on our communities standing together against violence. Too many of our neighbors have been injured or killed due to senseless aggression. We have come to a historic turning point as a country – it is time for us to collectively holster our weapons. I support the communities currently coming together peacefully to create a more just society.
At the National Physicians Alliance, we believe health care is a human right. We also know that civil rights are closely tied to health. No one should fear for their life because of their race. Law enforcement and the courts should protect all of us equally. We must demand this not just in theory, but also in practice.
NPA’s Gun Violence Prevention Resources are available here.