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.

The American Public Health Association (APHA), the largest public health organization in the country, has adopted a statement that states clearly that law enforcement violence is a public health issue fundamentally rooted in structural racism — something we have known for generations. This formal acknowledgement is an important victory for organizers and communities who have been doing this work for years. Now, we as a public health community must take action and do our part to push for health equity.

In November 2018, during their annual conference in San Diego, California, APHA passed the policy statement declaring law enforcement violence as a public health issue. With a national membership of over 25,000 members and influence with policymakers and federal agencies, policy statements adopted by APHA help align its legislative priorities and lobbying work with critical public health issues and facilitate further public health research.

The statement, “Addressing Law Enforcement Violence as a Public Health Issue,” was written by the End Police Violence Collective. This growing collective—rooted in grassroots organizing—is composed of a group of public health researchers, teachers, graduate students, nonprofit leaders, and community organizers.

The policy statement was finally passed after a 3-year effort by the End Police Violence Collective to write and propose the language and organize support within the governing structure of APHA. This broad-based group firmly advocated for public health solutions to law enforcement violence that call for divestment from state-sanctioned policing and investment in community-based solutions and health equity interventions.

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.

The statement advocates for an upstream public health approach, recognizing that often-touted police-focused interventions such as community-oriented policing, trainings, and body cameras (i.e., downstream interventions) have shown little, if any, reduction in violence. It goes beyond the prevalent narrative of morally-corrupt individual officers (i.e., changing or eliminating behavior of individual officers) and instead pushes us to use our public health training to shift the system altogether using a social determinants of health frame.

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.

It’s important to note that the policy solutions outlined in the adopted APHA statement are not novel strategies. Those most impacted by police violence have been expressing these types of policy changes for many years. This is why the campaign to adopt the policy statement was shaped in partnership with Critical Resistance in Oakland, California which has been working to address the prison industrial complex through prison and police abolition as part of a long legacy of organizing to dismantle systems of policing and incarceration.

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.

The recommendations put forward in the statement intentionally align with the goals and visions of local organizing groups across the country that are leading this work on the ground. Additionally, the statement is now a citable evidence-based resource, providing one more tool that organizers can use to pressure their elected officials to adopt upstream policies, and to build support for their movements.

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.

The APHA policy statement cites the reallocation of funds from policing to the social determinants of health as an evidence-based strategy to address police violence. The statement can have even broader uses. Below are 2 examples of groups advocating for the reallocation of funds beyond policing to promote public health alternatives to expanded militarized policing and juvenile detention.

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.

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.

Public health can no longer sit on the sidelines and ignore social justice movements, including the public health impact of law enforcement violence. The APHA statement can, in fact, further our public health advocacy to bring weight to the work many of us are already doing. By shifting our own field to put energy and resources into upstream solutions to address law enforcement violence, we can better work towards racial and health equity.

Omid Bagheri is a co-author of the recently adopted APHA policy statement “Addressing Law Enforcement Violence as a Public Health Issue,” a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Public Health, and an anti-racist public health organizer and advocate based in Seattle, WA.

Sari Bilick is a Senior Public Health Organizer at Human Impact Partners. Sari leads the organizing and advocacy work at HIP and coordinates Public Health Awakened, a network of public health professionals organizing to support social justice movements and resist attacks on our communities.

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