Last month, four teenage boys from Washington, D.C., were placed in handcuffs and detained in a park for selling water. The plain clothes police officers claimed that the handcuffs were necessary “for the safety of the officers and of the individuals” according to a statement from Sgt. Anna Rose of the U.S. Park Police. She continued to downplay the incident by further stating that is was “blown out of proportion.”
But the Black community smelled a very familiar rat.
Since January, more than 540 people have suffered fatal injuries from police interactions. The most recent findings in police shooting data has concluded that Black citizens are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white citizens. Between 2002 and 2011 it was found that in over 43 million face-to-face interactions with the police, over 700,000 resulted in the use or threat of excessive force. Accusations of excessive force was found to be when an individual was kicked, punched, physically forced to comply, cursed at, threatened or had a gun put in their face. It's no surprise that in cases of excessive force, Black citizens were twice as likely to be victims than white citizens. But cases of excessive force or even those resulting in death are not the primary or underlying issue.
The issue is that the mental well being of civilians — and especially civilians of color — is not widely respected in the police community. But what real impact do police interactions, whether it’s being targeted and questioned as if they are criminals, like the four young men in Washington, or being mistaken for threatening grown men, like Tamir Rice and Tatyana Hargrove, have on our youth?
Brooklyn-based psychotherapist and LCSW Nikita Banks describes how self-esteem can be toppled by early interactions with law enforcement at a time where personal security and confidence in environment can shape a person's mind the most. “Negative self-esteem is formed when people become insecure as a result of abuse, neglect and even discrimination,” she explains. “We are in a dangerous time where nothing seems to make sense. Grown professional adults are not held accountable, yet children are not seen as children and are expected to be well-behaved so as not to be killed. We wouldn’t expect this from teachers. We wouldn’t expect this from doctors, we don’t even expect this from parents.”
Recently the conversation of "Who is at fault?" has deepened, as New Jersey announced it will be rolling out a program to teach students how to properly interact with law enforcement. This perpetuates the commonly argued idea that many police tragedies could have been prevented if the victim had only behaved better. This victim-blaming wouldn’t fly if the case involved sexual assault or partner abuse — but when the aggressor is a police officer, suddenly the blame shifts to the citizen. This completely negates the very important point about where your mind goes when you have an interaction with law enforcement — how it affects your actions in that moment and even for the rest of your life.
Dee Thomas recalls his very first encounter with the police in Pontiac, Michigan, when he was just 12 years old. He and his friends were on their way to play video games at his house after being at the Boys and Girls Club all morning and most of the afternoon when they were stopped by local police officers in a patrol car.
The officer driving the vehicle hops out and asks, “So what are guys up to?” My friends are shook, I take the lead and respond, “We’re leaving from the Boys and Girls Club and about to play video games at my house.” The other officer, now out of the vehicle, responds, “Bullshit! We got a call saying that five Black kids are running around breaking into houses.” With confusion, I responded, “We were at the Boys and Club today all day long.” The cop I’m speaking to came over to me and says, “You got a smart trap.” He proceeds to yank me off my bike. This man who was white and in his early 30s is literally throwing a defenseless 105-pound 12-year old on the ground. My friends dart off in terror. The other cop, Latino in his mid-30s says, “Hey, relax we only want to ask you some questions.”
Dee continues to recount how his uncle, also a local Pontiac officer, arrived on the scene and immediately deescalated the situation by letting the other officers know Dee was his nephew and was a good kid. Although Dee and his friends were disturbed by the brief encounter, it was what happened afterward that many people tend to overlook. Dee says his outlook on law enforcement changed drastically after that.
From that moment on, I had a major disdain for law enforcement. I felt that I lost something that day that I know I can’t get back. How could I believe in justice when the agents that interpret the law literally chose me to be a criminal that day? Where’s the justice in that? To this day I still am anxious at the sight of police — I never see them as allies due to that moment back in 2002.
Possibly the most oppressive strike to the Black community’s sense of security and safety is that in so many cases, the offending officers are not prosecuted. Even when there is substantial evidence, video footage, and eyewitnesses, so many of these cases result in acquittal and minimal professional consequences for the officers involved. When the community takes to the streets to voice their grievances, the media tends to report on our demonstrations as riots, mobs and aggressive or violent thugs.
The difference in reporting was evident after Justine Damond was shot and killed during an altercation with a police officer in Minneapolis. Damond, a white yoga instructor from Australia, was immediately reported as being demure and innocent and the resulting community uproar was referred to as peaceful and understandable protest. This represents a strong divergence from the typical script of cases like Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and Michael Brown, in which their resistance to arrest took center stage from the very beginning. Never mind the fact that when approached by another person wielding a loaded gun and the legal right to shoot you, one may not react with the most sound mind. Why, then, is it up to untrained citizens to act with a cool head and not the officers who have built a career around handling stressful situations? How can we build a healthy positive community outlook when the health of our communities is rested in the hands of a system we lost trust in long ago?
Banks sites repeated police interactions as being traumatic experiences that can cause mental health disorders and favors building positive over the negative as our only hope for changing the standard narrative. Bringing awareness to how scary (yes, scary) police interactions can actually be is important for helping to push reform, but it’s what happens at home that will have the most lasting impact on our children. “We have to start breathing love, life and security in our children.” Banks insists, “We have to start having discussions with our children about their feelings and giving them language to describe what is happening to them internally to counteract these negative thoughts. They can’t do it on their own and we first have to start with us.”
It’s been ingrained into all of us that when it comes to building and strengthening our communities, we are basically on our own. Our issues are not the concern of the majority at large. As more and more evidence builds against the current state of the police, we can hope to see change one day. We all sit and wait to see how Justine Damond’s case develops as the world finally takes notice of a growing problem in the United States. If the police are afraid of a strong Black frame (whether it belongs to a child or a homeless woman) it seems easy to dismiss. But when the police are afraid of a petite, blond white woman, it draws a larger question and one that now plays out on the international stage. While we wait for the rest of the world to catch up with our reality of worry and stress, we can rest assured that we are the keepers of our own destiny. Our mental health and safety is absolutely the most valuable asset in our community and we must hold it as our first priority — despite what the world wants us to believe.
Our sense of security is important and we should fight to keep it intact.
(Photo: Hill Street Studios/Matthew Palmer/Getty Images)