Addressing Police Violence As a Public Health Issue: APHA’s New Hard-Won Stance and What Comes Next

By Omid Bagheri and Sari Bilick

APHA members rally in front of the conference center before the APHA vote on the policy statement.

1,166. That’s the estimated number of people that were killed by police in the US in 2018.

This is according to one group that’s mapping incidents of death at the hands of police (however, there is no official and comprehensive database tracking and reporting deaths and injuries caused by police and law enforcement). The public health field understands the need to ensure our data are accurate and inequities should be documented, yet this is only one piece of a public health approach to addressing police violence — we must also ensure that our work is guided by social justice movements.

Shifting the narrative to the structural

The policy statement is significant because it focuses on structural changes to address police violence. Core to the statement is an analysis of structural racism and how modern-day policing impacts marginalized communities, particularly people of color, immigrants, people experiencing houslessness, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, individuals with mental illness, people who use drugs, and sex workers.

It is the underlying conditions of the institutions, systems, and society we live in that determine our health outcomes.

Increasing access to housing and mental health services and expanding educational and employment opportunities can do more to address community trauma, prevent violence, and address health inequities than increased policing and the criminalization of marginalized communities.

A tool for organizing and power building

The collective power of communities most impacted by law enforcement violence has the ability to change our broken systems. The APHA statement is another organizing tool that communities can now use to affect change and add a public health argument to address law enforcement violence.

Public health: let’s put the statement to use!

If public health as a field can recognize that law enforcement violence is a public health issue, we can address it with public health interventions and lend our resources and expertise to the community-led movements to end law enforcement violence.

Advocacy example: divesting from militarized police trainings

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Stop Urban Shield—a partnership between public health, immigrant rights, racial justice, and peace groups—has been organizing for years to shut down a militarized police training program. After securing an end to the program, Alameda County officials will now consider moving millions of dollars to the Public Health Department and other county agencies rather than the Sheriff’s Office. The APHA statement will bolster this coalition’s work to make that a reality.

Advocacy example: investing in youth instead of jails

Community organizers in Seattle are organizing against the construction of a $210 million dollar new youth jail. They are advocating to instead invest in educational and economic opportunities for young people. As part of the organizing effort against the jail, King County officials have responded by shifting control of the current juvenile jail to the public health department. This is leading to more trauma-informed and holistic strategies. However, continued work is needed to understand that a new youth jail that cages kids, regardless of programs and services build alongside it, is a public health problem and should be addressed as such.

Read the full statement here and incorporate the policy recommendations into your own public health advocacy work!

Bringing the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society

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