Commentary: Law Enforcement Violence and the Construction of a Just Society

June 08, 2020


Following is a commentary by Dr. Rafael E. Pérez-Figueroa, assistant professor of Health, Behavior & Society in the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, and Dr. Kathryn M. Cardarelli, associate professor of Health, Behavior & Society and senior assistant provost for faculty affairs and professional development at UK. This content originally appeared on UKNow

Along with other epidemics, our country suffers one of structural violence and oppression against people of color. The most recent acts of violence against the Black community as seen in the horrific killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, have sparked protests across the country driven by the desire to end centuries of racial injustice. These deaths are a manifestation of a historical continuum of racist structures that permeate all levels of society and destroy the prospect of an equitable nation. These forms of oppression confer an unequal position for people of color and systematically jeopardize their health. As an academic community, we share the commitment of aligning evidence, analysis, discourse, and actions with the most important problems in society. We join those that demand knowledge, policies, and practices reflective of a just and equitable society.

As our nation faces a pandemic, we need to stand on the side of justice. Health disparities disproportionately affect people of color due to racism and discrimination, which have fueled the COVID-19 crisis. Communities of color are burdened with over-policing and mass incarceration, resulting in systematic criminalization and community violence. For decades, law enforcement violence has resulted in deaths, injuries, stress, and collective trauma that excessively affects people of color. The enduring legacy of these forms of structural violence is inequities in health, wealth, education, housing, and safety. Over generations, people of color have experienced disparities in preventable diseases and death, including unjust differences in quality and length of life among Americans. The burden of inequities among communities of color undermines our democracy, national security, economic vitality, and overall health status. The enduring effects of racism and discrimination require collective and coordinated action.

Law enforcement violence is a critical public health issue burdening primarily people of color. In 2016, law enforcement violence resulted in an estimated 54,754 years of life lost. Fatal and non-fatal injuries associated with law enforcement interventions have a substantial cost for the nation, estimated at $1.8 billion in 2010 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evidence suggests a clear connection between law enforcement encounters and elevated risk of physical harm and death among people of color. However, the impact of this systematic violence extends far beyond injuries and death, affecting communities’ ability to achieve positive health and economic outcomes for generations, and in this way compounding inequities. Accounts of law enforcement violence are likely to be underestimated given the dearth of comprehensive information on deaths, mental and physical injuries, and frequency of encounters. Policies and institutionalized practices that facilitate discriminatory policing are particularly problematic since they result in increased rates of use of force and unlawful killings. State-based policies and union contracts limit law enforcement accountability and our capacity as a nation to evaluate the impact of this form of violence. Policies that criminalize protesting and mobilizations, critical means for vulnerable and marginalized communities to voice concerns and to promote changes aimed at social justice, constrain our free speech and human rights. It is our responsibility as an academic community to examine the legal, social, and political systems that lead to and systematically reproduce harm among people of color.

The systematic and institutionalized root causes of inequities in this country can be overwhelming. In this historical moment, we need to redouble our efforts using our academic tools in addressing racism, xenophobia, violence, and hate to support democracy, justice, inclusion, and peace. It is our duty as scientists to stand up and speak out when we see racial injustices that impact our nation.

Addressing racism and discrimination should be understood as a process and an enduring practice. System-level actions are necessary to reduce structural racism, reduce poverty, improve income equality, increase educational opportunity, and dismantle the laws, policies, and practices that perpetuate structural inequities. Members of this academic community as well as actors at the community level are agents of local change with the power to influence the social justice narrative and promote equity. As community-engaged researchers, we condemn racism and discrimination in all forms, and stand against all actions that perpetuate unjust systems and erode the construction of an equitable society.