The American Public Health Association (APHA)—the nation’s leading public health organization, with over 25,000 members—has declared police violence to be a public health issue.
This was one of a dozen policy statements, including another that opposes the separation of migrant families at the US-Mexico border, adopted at the organization’s annual conference this week.
“Physical and psychological violence that is structurally mediated by the system of law enforcement results in deaths, injuries, trauma, and stress,” reads APHA’s newly adopted policy statement. “Further, certain regulations (e.g., anti-immigrant legislation, policies associated with the war on drugs, and the criminalization of sex work and activities associated with houselessness) have promoted and intensified violence by law enforcement toward marginalized populations.”
The organization notes that at least 1,091 people were killed by law enforcement officers in the US in 2016, according to the Guardian‘s project The Counted. There were also 76,440 non-fatal injuries due to legal intervention that year, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. APHA also cites a “clear connection between increased exposure to stops and an elevated risk of death or physical harm by law enforcement officers.”
And these issues “disproportionately affect marginalized populations (e.g., people of color, immigrants, individuals experiencing houselessness, people with disabilities, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) community, individuals with mental illness, people who use drugs, and sex workers).”
APHA adopted the new policy thanks to the efforts of End Police Violence, a group of organizers including researchers, doctors, professors and graduate students. They held a shadow conference—”Health Equity Now: Ending Police Violence”—alongside the official APHA conference, which took place in San Diego on November 10-13.
Speakers at the shadow conference included: Steve Osuna, a historian of the LAPD; Asantewaa Boykin, of the Anti Police-Terror Project; local activists; and keynote speaker Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing.
“What’s significant about [the APHA policy] passing,” Vitale tells Filter, “is that it’s part of a trend right now which is health care workers speaking out against law enforcement-centered strategies.”
This boldness is echoed in recent efforts by doctors to challenge the NRA’s demand that they “stay in their lane” when it comes to gun violence.
“These public health workers are on the front lines of what’s going on in emergency rooms and clinics, they see the consequences of criminalizing homelessness, mental illness, sex work,” says Vitale.
The APHA statement has two parts. The first simply acknowledges that police violence is a public health issue. “Almost 10 percent of all homicides in the US are committed by police,” says Vitale. “Even if some may be ‘lawful,’ it’s not ok that we kill 1,000-1,200 people a year by police.”
The second part of the statement goes further, according to Vitale—establishing that “the solution to this [health problem] is best public health practices, not procedural policing reforms.”
In other words, it takes a firm stance against a group of “well-meaning liberal reformers” within public health who “think that policing produces problems, but who still see the solution as more or better training, improving entry requirements…they have a narrow understanding of the problem to think that it can be fixed with ‘community policing‘ or by requiring college degrees for police officers.”
APHA now takes a firm position against such “thin blue line” logic—which holds, according to the End Police Violence website, that “social problems are due to concentrations of ‘pathological’ people in certain areas and require police to keep ‘those’ people from harming others,” rather than focusing resources and efforts on addressing social and structural determinants.
Jade Rivera—now a faculty member at San Francisco State University and a co-author of the statement—is one of the leaders behind End Police Violence, which also works alongside grassroots groups like the Anti Police-Terror Project, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, and White Coats for Black Lives.
While earning a master’s in Public Health, Rivera and two other students began looking at how they could use the framework of health equity to explore alternatives to dominant narratives around police violence. They were inspired by the work of grassroots organizers who had come before them.
“There are historic places where the medical and health communities have had really bold stances around supporting marginalized communities to access health care,” Rivera tells Filter. “Like foundational work that the Young Lords did, for example. With Black Lives Matter, and Ferguson, the medical community can no longer ignore [police violence].”
End Police Violence has worked for three years to get APHA to adapt its statement (it was voted down in 2017). “We see [this year’s acceptance of the statement] as a big win and big victory that an organization like APHA with 25,000 members can take really clear stances as being anti-racist and anti-oppressionist,” says Rivera. “There’s a lot of value.”
So what’s next?
Organizers hope the statement will serve, according to Rivera, “as a resource for local health organizations, researchers and epidemiologists. And we hope it will be used to fundamentally support more grassroots organizing.”
“These policies of using the police are made at the local level,” explains Vitale. Like Rivera, he sees the statement serving as another “rhetorical tool” for local communities to use in their attempts to “replace police and jail spending with community-based mental health programs, drug treatments, community anti-violence programs and other harm reduction programs.”
“There’s a big debate underway right now about the politics of abolition,” he concludes. “There’s a real battle between the procedural reformers and the folks who want to replace policing completely with community-based alternatives that are non-punitive and non-coercive. A statement like this is going to be part of these future conversations.”
Image via Films for Action