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AJC Op-Ed: Reducing police violence will make Georgia safer, healthier

A focus on reform, mental and even physical health will have multiple benefits.

200923-Atlanta-Donia Hanaei, a harm reduction specialist with the Atlanta/Fulton Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative (PAD), talks with a person at Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. PAD helps divert people who face an immediate arrest to social services that can address the persons needs and keep them out of the legal system. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative at work in Atlanta/Ben Gray for AJC

By Opal Gay, printed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution June 6, 2023

Police violence, sometimes referred to as excessive use of force, is endemic in our nation. Law enforcement officers kill over 1,000 people and injure more than 50,000 every year (not including the many instances which go systematically unreported). In addition to these numbers being substantially higher than other developed nations, sadly, they are also plagued by biases and systemic failures that disproportionately target poor, Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ individuals – often for what begin as nonviolent offenses.

Proponents of police reform typically regard these encounters for their violations of civil and human rights; however, a new consensus is beginning to emerge – one that constitutes police violence as a public health crisis. In the past five years alone, The American Public Health AssociationThe American Psychological AssociationThe American Psychiatric Association, and The American Medical Association have each denounced police brutality as detrimental to the health and well-being of targeted individuals and communities.

What’s important to consider is that the negative health impacts go well past those directly subjected to excessive or lethal forms of force. The mere presence of police violence is linked to a field of negative community outcomes, including higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. Additionally, one survey found that racial minority groups and LGBTQ+ individuals were significantly more likely to report instances of police violence in their respective communities and that this exposure was associated with higher levels of psychological distress — including risk of suicide.

More alarming, as it stands now, our current approach to public safety is perhaps most harmful to those with existing health needs. Due to a lack of mental health care resources, law enforcement are often the first call when a mental health emergency occurs. One estimate suggests 1 in every 10 police interactions involves someone experiencing mental illness. Without proper training and resources, these interactions can be dangerous and deadly. People struggling with mental illness are 12 times more likely to experience police force, and 16 times more likely to die at the hands of police.

But even beyond physical violence, being stopped, searched, or arrested by the police can be a traumatic experience that contributes directly to worsened health. Among the most policed group in the nation, young Black men, 40 years of scientific data confirms that police presence and contact are generally associated with a range of adverse health outcomes, including poor mental health, risky sexual health behaviors, substance abuse issues and an impaired sense of safety. Among Black queer men (and Black transgender women), police contact is additionally associated with HIV vulnerability.

We should ask ourselves, does any of this make us safer? Collectively, can we be secure in a system that disproportionately exposes certain groups to mental distress and harm?

We deserve a public safety system that also advances public health.

I argue, to promote healthier communities throughout our state, Georgia policymakers should reduce unnecessary encounters between law enforcement and citizens, particularly for low-level offenses which do not threaten public safety. For example, recent efforts by state and local governments that decriminalize or deprioritize the enforcement of minor traffic offenses — such as those that resulted in the brutalization of Sandra Bland and Philando Castile — are proven to reduce police violence.

Decriminalizing minor offenses will also significantly lower racial inequality in enforcement. For illustration, the Atlanta Police Department (one of the largest and most resourced law enforcement agencies in the nation) reports that close to 50% of arrests are for nonviolent and minor offenses. And, when compared to their white counterparts, Black Atlantans are about 15 times more likely, and Latino Atlantans are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for these categories of offenses.

In the particular case of Georgians struggling with mental illness, we should consider diverting public safety resources into non-law enforcement alternatives. One proven approach is Atlanta’s Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiatives (PAD). PAD is a program that diverts individuals who are chronically impoverished, housing-insecure and struggling with mental health issues away from the criminal legal system and connects them with community-based resources, such as temporary housing, transportation, substance abuse management and job training. By providing people with the support they need, PAD is helping to reduce recidivism and improve public health.

On a larger scale, we should leverage our tax dollars toward investments that make our communities safer and healthier. In Georgia, we spend more on law enforcement and corrections than we do on healthcare and housing combined – even as investments in the latter are shown to be highly effective in reducing violent crime. For example, a recent report out of the Brookings Institute found that programs and services that expand access to economic opportunity, equitable community development and social harmony for underserved communities are highly effective in reducing violent crime rates and sustaining well-being.

In sum, we are made safer when our governments prioritize health, joy and well-being over surveillance, punishment and state-sanctioned violence.

Opal Gay is a Ph.D. student of sociology and instructor at Georgia State University. They are a graduate editorial fellow for the urban research publication City and Community. Their research has been published in multiple journals on racial inequality, including The Journal of Urban Affairs and Social Sciences. Gay is also a policy research fellow with the Southern Center for Human Rights and a fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Policy Research program.

Printed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution June 6, 2023.