Young men in New York City who frequently have intrusive encounters with the police report increased levels of anxiety and trauma after being stopped on the street by law enforcement officials, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health. The research is the latest data point in a growing body of evidence that poverty, racism, and discrimination takes a toll on health.
The New York Police Department has become somewhat notorious for its aggressive policing tactics, including a widely criticized “stop-and-frisk” program that has explicitly targeted young men of color. There have been more than five million stops made over the past decade, according to data compiled by the ACLU, and 90 percent of them involved individuals who were innocent of wrongdoing.
In order to assess whether being stopped by the police may have an effect on mental health, researchers surveyed more than 1,200 mostly black and Hispanic men in New York between the ages of 18 and 26. They asked them questions about their police interactions, as well as questions intended to assess whether they may have suffered any symptoms of post-traumatic stress from those experiences. They found that the men who had been stopped more frequently by cops were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety.
“Our findings suggest that any benefits achieved by aggressive, proactive policing tactics may be offset by serious costs to individual and community health,” the study authors, who include a Columbia University professor who has previously testified about the racial bias inherent in New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, wrote. “Less invasive tactics are needed for suspects who may display mental health symptoms and to reduce any psychological harm to individuals stopped.”
Amanda Geller, the lead author of the study, told MSNBC that the research brings up questions about how policing may affect communities even beyond issues related to civil liberties. “I think public health outcomes are absolutely something we should be looking at,” she said.
Aside from the specific issue of stop-and-frisk, there’s a lot of evidence that deeply ingrained racial inequality has significant consequences for public health. Other research has found that young black teens who frequently encounter discrimination have heightened levels of stress, putting them at greater risk for developing chronic conditions later in life. In adults, racial discrimination has been linked to high blood pressure and psychological stressors. People of color are also more likely to live in areas of the country that have poorer air quality, making them more likely to suffer from health issues like asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
There are other unexpected health implications of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, too. The mass incarceration of black men has left health researchers with fewer African American participants in their clinical trials, which may prevent them from being able to develop medical treatments that work just as well for people of color as they do for white people.
Emphasizing the health consequences of over-policing in communities of color may not spur all Americans to oppose those policies, however. Recent research has revealed that white people are actually more likely to support harsh criminal justice laws if they disproportionately impact black people.
Last fall, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) ran on a platform dedicated to reforming stop-and-frisk. Community leaders in the city say that there’s been some progress in NYPD’s behavior under his administration, but they say there’s mostly been a reduction in the sheer number of stops, not necessarily in the targeting of African American and Latino men. Meanwhile, police unions continue to battle to overturn a federal court decision that determined there needs to be more oversight to prevent racial bias in the program.