Emory University | Woodruff Health Sciences Center
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Police violence as a public health issue

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It’s hard to turn on the news or open a newspaper without coming across an account of excessive police violence or demonstrations in reaction to it. However, police violence has not been considered as a public health issue until recently.

Hannah Cooper, associate professor of behavioral sciences and health education, recently edited a special issue of Journal of Urban Health devoted to this topic. “Research on excessive police violence as a public health issue is in its infancy,” says Cooper, who worked with Mindy Fullilove, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, on the issue. “I think that’s because the people who set the research agenda are not the people who are targeted by the police, so this issue has not shown up on their radar.”

In fact, Cooper stumbled on the topic accidentally while working on her dissertation in 2004. Her topic was drug use and HIV incidence in a New York City neighborhood, but the people she interviewed—both drug users and non-drug users—brought up police violence again and again. It emerged as such a large, overshadowing factor in their lives that she decided to add a paper on the topic to her dissertation. She’s been studying the issue since.

The Journal of Urban Health special edition featured nine papers on various aspects of police violence. Several of the papers examined the health effects of excessive police violence, including one that found neighborhoods with higher rates of stop and frisk—a potentially invasive body search for drugs or a weapon—also had higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

“We tend to think of physical injury resulting from police violence, but this paper looked at long-term chronic outcomes,” says Cooper. “Living in an environment characterized by what is perceived as police harassment increases the incidence of 
poor health.”

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