In a recently unearthed 2015 audio clip, Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg defends stop-and-frisk, the controversial policy he oversaw as mayor of New York City, while acknowledging the “unintended consequences” — namely, the disproportionate arrest of Black and Latino residents on minor charges.
But that may not be the only unanticipated cost of the police tactic.
New research by Alyasah Sewell, a professor of sociology at Emory University, shows that stop-and-frisk and related police activity in New York City have a “spillover” effect — damaging the physical and mental health of residents in targeted neighborhoods.
Combining New York City health survey data with a police database of stops, Sewell and co-author Kevin Jefferson found poorer health outcomes in neighborhoods with more street stops — including psychological distress, diabetes, and high blood pressure. The association remained even after adjusting for a neighborhood’s average number of reported robbery complaints, poverty levels, residential segregation, and ethnic/racial composition, as well as individual respondents’ age, marital status, race, and insurance status.
Police in the United States kill about 1,000 individuals a year, according to the Guardian’s Counted Project. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total cost of fatal and nonfatal injuries resulting from law enforcement violence in 2010 was $1.8 billion, a number that includes medical costs and loss of potential earnings from work.
Against a backdrop of growing public attention on policing and inequity, the American Public Health Association issued a statement in 2018 declaring law enforcement violence to be a “critical public health issue,” outlining a large body of public health research that documents the health implications of police-perpetrated violence and abuse.
"Policing can impact health by impeding people’s ability to be outside and do things in public spaces, such as exercise,” said Hedwig Lee, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. But policing can also take a psychological toll "because you’re constantly having to be hyper-vigilant and worrying about what’s going to happen when you do go into public spaces and places.”
Lee co-authored a study with Sewell that found men who lived in neighborhoods where pedestrians were more likely to be searched by police were more likely to report severe psychological distress, as well as feelings of nervousness and worthlessness.
The effects don’t stem only from force or first-hand interactions.
“We can think about policing as a public health issue because the vigilance permeates into other people who are connected to these individuals,” said Lee.
Many police leaders are not persuaded that health outcomes can be so directly traced to police activity.
Seth Stoughton, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina and a former Tallahassee police officer, says that for the most part, police do not see themselves as harmful and are skeptical of research that shows that their actions are.
“As an industry, policing has not accepted, or conceptualized, the use of coercive authority as harmful, which is a significant oversight,” he said.
“There’s a lot of skepticism within policing of outside experts or research. The significant amount of distrust . . . essentially it’s predicated on the belief that any information not obtained from the perspective of a police officer is invalid or wrong.”
Law enforcement organizations such as the National Police Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization that conducts research around policing and provides technical assistance and training for law enforcement agencies, have been fostering debates on the harms of policing, but “even they are viewed with significant skepticism by a large part of the law enforcement community,” Stoughton said.
Former Burlington, Vt., police chief Brandon del Pozo, currently a fellow at the National Police Foundation, says “innovative police executives” are beginning to understand the negative effects of police interventions.
But he sounds a skeptical note about the stop-and-frisk research.
“There [are] so many problems facing these vulnerable communities,” said del Pozo. “[T]o isolate it to stop-question-and frisk, or rate of police violence, I think, is to simplify the problem in a way that doesn’t serve the community well.”
Sewell, the researcher, agrees more study is needed to better understand causality, but says the underlying principle is sound.
“This climate of fear really works more as a chronic stressor,” Sewell said. "Just the mere presence of blue lights at an intersection is going to activate your stress process.”
Sirry Alang, a professor of sociology and health, medicine, and society at Lehigh University, examines the impact of structural racism on individual health. In a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health, she called for more scholars to investigate the health impact of police brutality.
“I think that medical professionals, health care administrators, and health policymakers should really, really worry about police brutality,” Alang said. “If we address police brutality, in a lot of ways we would close a little bit of the racial gap in health outcomes.”
Alang’s most recent study finds that Black, Latino, and Native American adults were more likely to report negative and unnecessary encounters with the police than white counterparts. And those encounters appear to have ripple effects. They were associated, Alang found, with higher levels of medical mistrust — the belief that providers and healthcare organizations will not act in one’s best interest. She says negative experiences with law enforcement can lead to distrust of other powerful institutions, like hospitals.
Meanwhile, opponents of stop-and-frisk say they may add health effects to future legal arguments. A 1968 Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for the tactic — finding police need only “reasonable suspicion,” and not the more rigorous “probable cause,” to make a stop — never took account of potential community health damage, says Josephine Ross, professor of law at Howard University.
When asked why it is so difficult for police officers to accept the harm that they cause in communities, Stoughton, the law professor and former police officer, said, “When you view yourself and your career as good and noble and protective and righteous, and when you view many of the people you deal with as less good and less righteous than you are, it can be very difficult to acknowledge that you are causing some harms.”
Akilah Wise is a fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto and public health researcher who focuses on structural inequality and health.