Conference Coverage

Pediatricians called to action in addressing children’s trauma from police brutality



Pediatricians and other health care professionals who care for children are uniquely situated and qualified to educate the rest of the nation on how police brutality and overpolicing traumatizes children and teens and why those issues must be addressed, said Cornell William Brooks, JD, MDiv, a professor of public leadership and social justice at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Brooks, also former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), delivered an impassioned call to action during a plenary session at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held virtually this year.

“In this moment, you enjoy an extraordinary measure of trust,” Mr. Brooks said. “As a consequence, I would argue that history and circumstance call upon to you to speak to this moment with a voice that is distinctive as a measure of expertise and unique as a measure of trust and credibility.”

The flood of comments throughout his live talk testified to how inspirational the AAP attendees found his words.

“We, as pediatricians, have a very powerful voice together,” wrote AAP President-elect Lee Savio Beers, MD.

“As pediatric staff we need to have our voices heard beyond the walls of our clinics, in our schools, in our legislative bodies and communities as a whole!” wrote Michelle Bucknor, MD, MBA, chief medical officer of United Healthcare of North Carolina.

Mr. Brooks opened his talk with images of Tamir Rice, Emmett Till, and George Floyd, explaining how images of Emmett Till’s dead body galvanized a movement in the same way that Rice, Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police brutality are doing today.

“Emmett Till was killed by white racists in 1955 in Mississippi on the eve of the Montgomery boycott, and his death and his tragic image in death animated and inspired the Civil Rights movement,” Mr. Brooks said. Now “the country is divided along the fissures of class and the fault lines of race in a moment of generationally unprecedented policing. These images, tragic as they are, represent the countenance, the face of police brutality in this moment. “

How police brutality affects children

Since the death of George Floyd, at least 27 million Americans have participated in protests and demonstrations throughout at least 550 jurisdictions in the United States and throughout the world, Mr. Brooks said. But the harm of police brutality extends beyond police homicide victims.

“The harm is a matter of overpoliced patients and untreated children,” he said. Children are watching and listening as the nation grapples with police brutality and overpolicing, and the experience is traumatizing them in ways that shows up in school performance and health.

He shared findings from multiple different studies showing that exposure to police violence in the community is associated with declines in grade point averages, lower test scores, and poorer attendance. Risk of emotional disturbance is 15% greater in children exposed to police violence, and youth who have had contact with the police have reported worse health than those who hadn’t. Some of these effects increased with age, and they disproportionately fell almost entirely on Black and Hispanic students.

“Because of this trauma, school attendance and college enrollment declines,” Mr. Brooks said. “Police brutality has an impact on your patients, and beyond the patients who are right in front of you, there is a sea of millions of untreated, unattended children, and this trauma is reflected in the tremor of their voices, the trepidation, the apprehension, the fear that can be discerned in their spirits.”

Mr. Brooks shared several quotes from two qualitative studies that attempted to capture the experience of youths living in overpoliced communities and whose daily routines are criminalized. One respondent in this research said, “Sometimes I think to myself that I probably look suspicious, but I, like, shouldn’t think like that ‘cause I’m a human being.” Another said when he sees the police come around when there are groups of boys out, “I have my phone ready to record. I’m just waiting for something to happen.”


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