Policy brutality in the US has been a matter of public concern for decades. More recently, it has elicited considerable public attention following high-profile police brutality cases, such as the death of Michael Brown in 2014. In particular, disproportionate police brutality toward members of ethnic and racial minority groups has received a lot of media coverage and incited widespread protests. Although the phenomenon of police brutality is not a new one, its definition remains vague, and its extent is difficult to quantify. While this term has traditionally been used to describe the excessive use of physical violence, police brutality may include other forms of violence. This paper aims to discuss the types of police brutality, the particularities of psychological harm inflicted by the police, and its consequences for the population affected by these forms of violence. Although the excessive use of physical force by the police constitutes brutality, other types of abuse may also have severe physical and psychological consequences for the affected population because they create an atmosphere of insecurity.
Forms of Police Brutality
While there is no doubt that the excessive use of physical force by the police officers constitutes brutality, police violence is not limited to this specific form. The WHO gives the following definition of police brutality: “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself […] that either result in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation” (Cooper, 2015, p. 1188). The term “power” in the context is, thus, not explicitly limited to physical force. Moreover, there are four types of violence identified by the WHO: physical, sexual, psychological, and neglectful (Cooper, 2015). Psychological violence may include insults, psychological pressure technics, and other forms of psychological abuse. Although this type of abuse is no less frequent, the public discussion and research on police brutality tend to focus on physical harm, overlooking other forms of violence.
The so-called stop and frisk are one of the most common practices that can amount to police violence and cause considerable psychological harm. According to Cooper (2015), this practice disproportionally targets Black and Latino communities, in which members experience it as a type of psychological violence. The police carrying out stops and frisks citizens for no particular reason makes them experience a heightened level of stress in their daily lives. Moreover, during these stops, it is not uncommon that police officers routinely insult participants, handcuff them, and make them wait for long periods, etc. Such practices create a feeling of insecurity and fear while using public spaces.
Effects of Police Brutality on Public Health
It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the long-term effects of police brutality on communities. In particular, high risks of being exposed to police brutality potentially affect all group members. The reason is that “recurrent exposure to police violence against members of one’s racial/ethnic group could be interpreted as a form of discrimination” (Dukes & Kahn, 2017, p. 693). Heightened levels of perceived discrimination increase permanent stress levels and, consequently, have further repercussions on health. Thus, such a perception of even an isolated case of police violence may negatively affect the state of mental and physical health of the whole community.
Furthermore, there are larger effects on health that are linked to police brutality. While minority groups experience higher levels of stress linked to discrimination factor and police brutality, another survey reveals that, in general, residents of areas with a higher frequency of stops and frisks are less likely to be in good health (Cooper & Fullilove, 2016). In particular, they more often suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. Thus, the problem of police brutality is directly linked to the issue of public health. Different forms of police brutality have negative repercussions on public health and, thus, quality of life and life expectancy.
Effects of Police Brutality on Public Safety
Another significant effect of police violence is its impact on public safety. Public safety depends to a large extent on the citizens’ trust in the police and their willingness to cooperate. However, according to Desmond, Papachristos, and Kirk (2016), publicized cases of police brutality can undermine the legitimacy of authorities and “have a community-wide impact on crime-reporting that transcends individual encounters” (p. 870). Crime reporting eventually returns to its normal level, but in the short run, this effect has dire consequences for public safety. In particular, it prevents the application of justice and, more generally, makes American cities a more dangerous place to live.
Similarly, psychological violence produces distrust and undermines the legitimacy of the police. Furthermore, information on police brutality does not affect different communities’ trust in the police in the same way, because minorities routinely experience psychological violence, for example, during stop and frisks. Boudreau, MacKenzie, and Simmons (2019) confirm that “thematic information about a pattern of violence leads citizens to blame the police and public officials more and reassess their trust in the police department involved” (p. 9). However, this is particularly true among members of Black communities, regardless of the pattern of police violence in their residence area. Thus, these psychological effects have the potential to further diminish the trust of the already marginalized communities in the police and have larger effects on public safety.
The Necessity to Preserve Public Order
Some argue that non-lethal police violence can be justified by the necessity to preserve order and public safety. Indeed, the participants of the survey on police violence admitted that “the officers [carrying out stop and frisks] usually correctly identified hotspots of drug activity” (Cooper, 2015, p. 1191). Moreover, this may constitute a preventive action in the sense that potential offenders would be restrained by the fear of punishment. Consequently, although these practices constitute psychological violence and may indeed have negative effects on the residents’ health, they do protect public safety and efficiently tackle drug-trafficking.
However, preserving public safety by the means that increase legal cynicism can generate consequences that go far beyond specific issues, such as the fight against drug-trafficking. According to Corsaro, Frank, and Ozer (2015), when members of disadvantaged communities, especially minorities, start to feel marginalized by the police, they become more likely to turn to different forms of informal social control. This situation further increases the crime rate in a given neighborhood and leads to a state of “normlessness” that affects the lives of the whole community.
In conclusion, although policy brutality is mostly presented as the use of excessive physical force, psychological violence may also have a significant negative impact on the communities. The reason is that it creates fear, negatively affects health, and undermines trust in the police. Thus, psychological violence by police officers is directly linked to public health and public safety. Moreover, even when it is justified by the protection of public order, at the end of the day, it may bring more harm. Consequently, while dealing with police brutality, it is vital not to overlook its psychological aspect.
Boudreau, C., MacKenzie, S. A., & Simmons, D. J. (2019). Police violence and public perceptions: An experimental study of how information and endorsements affect support for law enforcement. The Journal of Politics, 81(3), 1-12.
Cooper, H. L. (2015). War on drugs policing and police brutality. Substance Use & Misuse, 50(8-9), 1188-1194.
Cooper, H. L., & Fullilove, M. (2016). Excessive police violence as a public health issue. Journal of Urban Health, 93(1), 1-7.
Corsaro, N., Frank, J., & Ozer, M. (2015). Perceptions of police practice, cynicism of police performance, and persistent neighborhood violence: An intersecting relationship. Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(1), 1-11.
Desmond, M., Papachristos, A. V., & Kirk, D. S. (2016). Police violence and citizen crime reporting in the black community. American Sociological Review, 81(5), 857-876.
Dukes, K. N., & Kahn, K. B. (2017). What social science research says about police violence against racial and ethnic minorities: Understanding the antecedents and consequences—An Introduction. Journal of Social Issues, 73(4), 690-700.