A Fordham social work professor set out to provide data that could help frame discussions of police violence and its impact on communities.
“My research goal was to take this socially charged debate and recognize there’s not enough data for either side of the issue, so we need to provide some empirical data that can be a starting point for some for these discussions,” said Jordan DeVylder, Ph.D.
In a paper released late last year on JAMA Network, DeVylder, associate professor of social work at the Graduate School of Social Service, found police violence posed a significant risk to public mental health in communities where such violence was prevalent.
The research will be featured this May on the Academic Minute, a radio program produced by Albany-based WAMC and broadcast nationally on NPR.
DeVylder said he began the research in Baltimore soon after the death of Freddie Grey, the 25-year-old African American man who died in police custody, igniting demonstrations throughout the city. At the time, DeVylder was doing work at the University of Maryland that focused on workplace discrimination, immigration, and urban living as risk factors for psychosis.
“The uprising was all around in west Baltimore, so I did a quick literature search and found that while there are some data from criminologists, there was very little in terms of public health,” he said. “The last time someone had looked at police violence from a public health perspective was in 2004. We needed to assess it from the standpoint of the community.”
DeVylder said he is well aware that police officers may take issue with these findings. But he said the research isn’t just for the benefit of the community, but for the police as well.
“Addressing police violence is not saying there’s something wrong with the police,” he said. “My expectation is that police who don’t engage in this kind of behavior would benefit for this to be addressed. It can’t be easy to work with people who engage in abusive behavior.”
The study, conducted in 2017, was not limited to underserved communities of color that are often associated with a prevalence of police violence. Rather, it examined a cross-section of Baltimore and New York City, studying adults of the same race breakdowns, median age, and sex in the two cities as derived from the 2010 census.
It looked at past-year exposure to police violence using the Police Practices Inventory, a metric designed by DeVylder for the survey. The violence experienced was categorized by types of violence as defined by the World Health Organization, such as physical, sexual, psychological, and neglectful. While police killings get the lion’s share of media attention, DeVylder said that other the other categories can be more nuanced, such as sexual violence, which can take the form of an inappropriate strip search, or neglect, which can take the form of unanswered emergency calls.
“I looked at each of these categories separately, and it surprised me how common these things are reported,” he said.
The paper, titled, “Association of Exposure to Police Violence with Prevalence of Mental Health Symptoms among Urban Residents in the United States,” found that four mental health variables (psychological distress, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and psychotic experiences) were significantly affected by four variables of police violence (physical violence with and without a weapon, sexual violence, and neglect). This does not necessarily mean that 100 percent of those reporting mental health symptoms also reported police violence, but that people exposed to police violence were two to seven times more likely to report mental health symptoms, depending on the type of exposure.
Overall, suicidal ideation, attempts, and psychotic experiences were reported by 9.1 percent, 3.1 percent, and 20.6 percent of the sample, respectively. The prevalence of police violence was 3.2 percent for sexual violence, 7.5 percent for physical without a weapon, 4.6 percent with a weapon, 13.2 percent for psychological, and 14.9 percent for neglect. Police violence exposures were higher among men, people of color, and those identified as lesbian, gay, or transgender.
“The more assaultive forms of violence were the most psychologically impactful,” said DeVylder. “On a more personal level, my feeling is we should look for alternatives for violence so that we’re on par with nations that are as developed as we are.”