Concern over the nature of police interactions with civilians has long been lurking beneath the surface of public discourse, recently capturing national attention with the advent of smartphone technology and real-time footage of numerous violent incidents. Community activists claim that these incidents are indicative of a broader culture of police violence. Police advocates claim that they represent the actions of a few “bad apples” and are not truly representative of policing in the U.S. There has not been systematic data to allow the support or refutation of either argument. Further, while the media has focused on direct effects of victimization such as killing and physical injury, it is likely that there are collateral mental health effects that have not been adequately studied.

Dr. DeVylder and colleagues conducted the Survey of Police-Public Encounters to provide empirical evidence to guide this public discourse. Specifically, the aim was to assess the community-reported prevalence of various types of police-public interactions, including positive policing as well as police victimization. The authors then tested for demographic disparities in police practices, as well as potential mental health consequences of exposure to police victimization. In particular, they were interested in whether police victimization was associated with elevated levels of depression and psychological distress. Survey data was collected towards achieving these aims from 1615 adult respondents residing in four U.S. cities (Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.).

The most commonly reported interactions with police were positive, reported by 47.4% of respondents. However, reports of police victimization were alarmingly common. Psychological victimization, which includes threatening, intimidating, and discriminatory language, was reported by 18.6% of the total sample. Police neglect, or failure to respond when called, was similarly common (18.8%). More severe forms of victimization were also reported by a smaller but very meaningful minority of respondents, including physical violence (3.3%), physical violence with a weapon (2.8%), and sexual violence (2.8%), which included public strip searches as well as sexual assault. In concurrence with the current public discourse, all forms of police victimization were more commonly reported by people of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos. Male and transgender respondents also reported higher levels of all forms of victimization. Positive policing, on the other hand, was linearly related to both income and education, in that higher socioeconomic status predicted more positive interactions with the police.

Notably, all forms of police victimization were related to heightened severity of depressive symptoms and general psychological distress. Adjusted analyses showed that these effects were not due to confounding demographic factors or the respondents’ involvement in criminal activities. Similarly, scores on a second scale of police-public interactions, which measured future expectations of police victimization, were related to both past history of police victimization and to depression and psychological distress. Together, these findings show that police victimization is relatively common in U.S. cities, is inequitably distributed across demographic groups, is associated with future expectations of continued negative contact with police, and is related to mental health difficulties.

These findings are generally consistent with current public concerns regarding policing in U.S. cities. Further research is needed to determine an optimal public health response to this issue. Approaches may include reducing exposure to victimization through police accountability efforts, or reducing the impact of victimization by involving social workers or other mental health professionals in the detention intake process.

Learn more about DeVylder’s article, Prevalence, demographic variation and psychological correlates of exposure to police victimisation in four US cities, published inEpidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. Free access will be available until December 31, 2016.

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