Op-Ed: Policing is a public health issue

Monday, September 14, 2020 - 12:05pm

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Madeline Hinkley/Daily

The Graduate Employees’ Organization strike has highlighted two issues confronting institutions of higher education: the pandemic response and policing. Many see these two issues as being disconnected, believing that one is a public health issue while the other is not. However, policing is an important public health issue that should be considered as part of a “public health-informed” semester that reflects a commitment to addressing structural racism. 

The field of public health is primarily concerned with preventing death and illness. Police can cause both direct and indirect physical and mental harm. Between 2012 and 2018, 6,295 men were killed by police, and from 2001 to 2014, boys and men aged 15-34 were treated in hospital emergency departments for injuries caused by police violence at a similar rate to that of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles. Black women are disproportionately represented among women who are killed by the police, and women of color are more likely to experience sexual violence at the hands of police. Many other groups — like LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrants, homeless people, those with low-socioeconomic status or mental health disorders — also experience heightened risk of police violence. 

Policing also negatively impacts mental health. Even police encounters that are not physically violent, including being stopped on the street or verbally harassed by police, have substantial and disproportionate public health impacts. Such encounters are linked to heightened depressive symptoms and higher rates of trauma, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Negative encounters with law enforcement are also linked to heightened mistrust and avoidance of health care institutions, which is particularly concerning amid a pandemic. Racial bias in surveillance, arrests and sentencing contribute to a disproportionate risk of incarceration and associated adverse mental and physical health impacts.

Decisions made by postsecondary institutions regarding campus policing and relationships with local police departments are critical for the health and well-being of students, faculty and staff, as well as the surrounding communities. There are opportunities for colleges and universities, including our own, to divest from harmful policing practices and instead take a public health-oriented approach, addressing policies and practices which disproportionately impact marginalized groups.  

The current conversation on the University of Michigan campus offers opportunities to critically examine responses by the University to the COVID-19 pandemic using a public health lens that encompasses consideration of policing practices. For example, the Michigan Ambassadors program — a student-led initiative that partners with campus police —  involves surveillance and reporting of “non-emergency compliance issues” related to COVID-19 (e.g. failure to wear a mask, large social gatherings). Unfortunately, given well-established patterns of racial bias in policing and reporting on campus, such programs place students of color at a disproportionate risk. Alternate strategies to slow disease transmission through a focus on structural and community change, rather than surveilling individual behaviors, should be considered. 

In 2018, the 25,000 member American Public Health Association formally recognized policing practices as a public health issue with disproportionate adverse impacts on racialized communities. APHA’s evidence-based policy statement, states, “Physical and psychological violence that is structurally mediated by the system of law enforcement results in deaths, injuries, trauma and stress that disproportionately affect marginalized populations.” Other major health organizations — like the American Medical Association — have issued similar declarations. 

Recognizing the essential role of community safety in supporting public health, the APHA policy statement advocates for community safety through investing in the social determinants of health (e.g., housing, education, jobs); decriminalizing poverty, mental illness and substance use; and implementing community-based alternatives to addressing harms and preventing trauma (e.g. transformative justice, restorative justice). The point is that ensuring safety does not require funding armed police but rather investing in programs that address root causes.

Institutions of higher education can reduce the harmful effects of policing by critically examining existing contracts with local police departments, actively pursuing alternatives and modeling the type of transformative change that is required through the management and funding of their own campus safety programs. Resources currently invested in policing can be redirected to expanded mental health services, evidence-based sexual assault prevention, affordable housing, tuition, equal pay and other factors critical to supporting a diverse, equitable and just campus and community. Creating a campus environment that prioritizes these supports over armed police facilitates learning and allows all members — particularly those most negatively impacted by policing — to thrive. 

Many institutions of higher education have already begun to take these steps. Following a request by Jael Kerandi, student body president of the University of Minnesota, and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel severed ties to the Minneapolis police force in May 2020. More than 85 graduate student unions, faculty unions, undergraduate groups and thousands of university-affiliated individuals have signed a cross-campus statement calling for their respective institutions to similarly cut ties with local police. Additionally, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and Yale University have all recently questioned the role of campus police.   

Campus policing practices, including contracts and agreements with local police departments and federal agencies, have powerful implications for efforts to foster a diverse, equitable and inclusive campus that supports the physical and mental well-being of students, faculty and staff. A truly “public health-informed” plan for workplace safety on campus must recognize how policing impacts health and must work actively to improve upon the health of all members of the community. 

All authors are faculty members from different departments at the University of Michigan. Amy Schulz, Paul Fleming, William Lopez, Carissa Schmidt and Riana Elyse Anderson are all faculty from the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, School of Public Health. Melissa Creary and Julia Wolfson are faculty from the Department of Health Management & Policy, School of Public Health. Additionally, Alexis J. Handal is a faculty member from the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health. All can be reached collectively at Polpubhlth@umich.edu.