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Student scholars: Social workers can advance research, discussion on the impact of negative police encounters on Black families, communities

Studies by university researchers, mainstream media, and independent nonpartisan groups from across the country, including the Center for Policing Equity and the American Civil Liberties Union, have documented that Blacks in America are arrested, detained, and subjected to use of force by police at rates disproportionate to other racial groups. However, social work scholars at Washington University (St. Louis, Mo.) and at UNC-Chapel Hill say that the resultant physical, psychological and economic costs of these actions that affect both Black families and communities as a whole are not routinely discussed. These scholars add that such knowledge is critically needed following historic and ongoing tensions between Blacks and law enforcement.

The scholars — Whitney Sewell, an MSW ’14 graduate who is a Ph.D. student at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, and Christina Horsford, Kanisha Coleman and Charity S. Watkins, who are Ph.D. students at the UNC School of Social Work — recently co-authored an article that focuses on how social workers can advance a fuller understanding of how Black families cope with discriminatory policing activities. “Vile Vigilance: An Integrated Theoretical Framework for Understanding the State of Black Surveillance” was published earlier this year in a special issue of Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment.

The authors said they tackled the topic in an effort to address the social work grand challenge to end racial injustice. Furthermore, Sewell, Horsford, Coleman and Watkins suggested that social workers have a responsibility to advocate for criminal justice reform and to help identify and holistically treat the trauma that Black individuals and their families may experience as a result of environmental stressors, including negative interactions with police or the perceived threat of such encounters.

“Social workers must understand that discrimination is, in fact, violence,” Sewell said. “When discrimination is framed in this manner, social workers can then understand the importance of integrating a trauma-related approach in the services they provide to African Americans.”

At the same time, practitioners must also be willing to identify and confront their own racial biases and challenge colleagues to do the same, she added.

“These actions are not easy, but social work is not an easy profession,” Sewell said. “Because we are employed in multiple spaces, including in the criminal justice system, schools, medicine and nonprofits, we bear the responsibility of educating, healing and empowering those spaces, especially when serving marginalized and vulnerable populations.”

In recent years, Black experience with racial injustice, particularly within legal systems, has gained greater visibility because of fatal police shootings of Black men across the country, including in New York, Missouri, South Carolina and Maryland. Investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice have intensified the attention and focus as patterns of abusive practices in law enforcement agencies have been uncovered, including in Ferguson, Mo., Newark, N.J., and Baltimore, Md.

“In Ferguson, among the problems the DOJ found was that the police department was specifically targeting Blacks for petty offenses to help fund city projects and streets,” Coleman noted. “So they were funding the city off of the backs of Black men. That’s a systemic issue. It’s very deep, and it requires structural change.”

The exact number of fatal police encounters involving civilians remains unclear because according to the FBI, less than 3 percent of the nation’s 18,000 police departments voluntarily share that information.

Moreover, federal investigators have reported that for those departments that do report data on shootings involving their own officers, the information is often incomplete or unreliable.

Because of the difficulty in getting accurate data from the federal government, mainstream media organizations, such as the Washington Post and Propublica, have recently built their own databases with information they have independently collected on fatal police shootings. According to a report from Propublica in 2014, Black males were 21 times more likely than White males to be fatally shot by police.

Yet, often missing from these reports are the ways discriminatory policing practices impact Black families and Black communities and contribute to the overall feelings of mistrust and fear about law enforcement that many African Americans share, Watkins said.

“When we talk about racism, we mostly focus on the individual,” she explained. “We don’t talk a lot about the trauma that happens at the meso or macro levels, not realizing that racism has effects at all of these levels.

“Without that insight, we don’t see how the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, can affect someone here in Chapel Hill,” Watkins added. “We need to be able to connect how seeing this Black man shot down in another city and state can still trigger a feeling of distrust in police officers among Black families in communities right here.”

Social workers are in the best position to develop interventions that address this kind of trauma and to promote larger change, the scholars agreed. For their article, the authors used a framework that incorporated three different social science theories. This framework enabled the authors to consider simultaneously: the unique stress that Blacks experience navigating a White America; the social and environmental stressors that undermine parental mental health and family relationships; and the cultural pride and history of resistance to oppression that Black families instill in their children as a means for coping with racism.

“The use of theory provides insight into the systematic and perpetual harm these shootings have on the health and well-being of African Americans,” Sewell explained.

To be aware, the authors agreed, means to understand how the contentious relationship between Blacks and law enforcement is woven into the historic fabric of this country — from the plantation days of slavery and the creation of the KKK to the enforcement of the South’s Jim Crow laws. From the federal anti-drug laws in the 1970s and 1980s to the growth of stop-and-frisk practices, all have contributed to the mass incarceration of Black men, the authors noted.

As a result, many Black communities have been devastated economically and socially because they have been stripped of “human and financial capital,” both of which are needed to combat poverty and nurture relationships, Horsford explained.

“Ultimately, it’s about money,” she said. “Without sustainable income from a good job where you can at least meet the basics for food and housing, families will struggle to flourish or prosper. So as social workers, we need to show how all of these things are not happening independent of one another. We really need to focus on the simultaneous impacts of these discriminatory police practices.”

In their article, the authors also discuss how everyday stressors from racism have been connected to heart disease, high blood pressure and other physical ailments. But some research has shown that frequent discriminatory acts can also have a cumulative psychological impact on Black individuals, including higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The key for practitioners is recognizing that people of color may present symptoms differently than Whites, especially based on their experiences with racism, the authors agreed. For example, Black people who present with depression experience higher rates of anger and hostility versus sadness, Horsford said. Blacks are also more likely, she added, to talk about depression via somatic symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.

“That is a cultural narrative that in some cases is a proxy for depression,” Horsford said. “So, being culturally competent means that when you’re working with certain people, you are aware that they present differently, and you might have to ask questions that go past, perhaps, what clinicians or mental health workers generally think of when trying to pinpoint the cause of a trauma.”

Ultimately, addressing the impact of discriminatory policing practices on Black families and communities requires a holistic approach and additional research that examines resiliency and the ways in which many families promote racial and cultural pride, the authors noted. This research should also focus on how families teach their children to navigate overt and covert instances of racism, including encounters with law enforcement, the authors said.

“My parents not only gave me what’s known as ‘the talk’ and how you should and shouldn’t interact with police, they also taught me coping mechanisms that included messages about how you’ll have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” Watkins explained. “For me, this kind of message also instilled a strong work ethic in me at a very young age. I knew that I had to get good grades and that I had to pursue scholarships for school because these opportunities were not going to be given to me.”
Although much more research is needed on the impact of discriminatory policing practices on Black families, social workers have the needed skills to advocate for institutional change and to help improve relationships between Black communities and police, the authors agreed.

“Ultimately, Black individuals, families and people of color in general are not going anywhere,” Horsford said. “The country is becoming increasingly diverse, and we have to find ways, really quickly, to make all of this work together.”