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Curbing police violence

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Though police violence has disproportionately targeted structurally marginalized communities as long as the US has had a police force, it’s only recently that this phenomenon has dominated headlines, captured mainstream attention, and spurred a movement. Dr. Hannah Cooper frames excessive police violence as a critical public health issue in her new book, From Enforcers to Guardians: A Public Health Primer on Ending Police Violence, cowritten with Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove.

Cooper, Rollins Distinguished Professor in Substance Use Disorders Research, and Fullilove, professor of urban policy and health at the New School, say investigation into the topic is long overdue. “Public health has done quite a good job engaging with violence as a major health crisis,” says Cooper. “We have worked to study community violence, identify its determinants, and develop interventions. We’ve done the same with intimate partner violence and child abuse. We did not, however, engage with police violence until very recently.”

The book covers the history, distribution, and health impacts of police violence, from slave patrols in colonial times to war-on-drugs policing in the present day. Their research got a boost from “pattern or practice investigations,” Department of Justice­–led probes into police departments for violating people’s rights under the Constitution.

The authors conclude with recommendations for curbing police violence, including an intentional refocusing of policing. “We are turning to police to address every social ill, from homelessness to mental illness,” says Cooper. “They are not trained to provide social services. We need to identify what the appropriate role is for the police.”

In our federalist system, she hopes states and municipalities take advantage of their freedom to experiment with policing. One municipality might abolish police altogether and shift the money to social services, preventive services, and education. Another might decide to roll back funding in police and invest it in social services but keep their police in a very defined role. Others might continue as they are. “My hope is that we are on the cusp of some important discoveries,” says Cooper.

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