When a Black person is killed by the police, Karsonya Wise Whitehead watches the footage, even though it causes her physical pain. Derrick Benson reviews the details of new cases to try to understand what might have happened to his brother, who was killed in police custody. Marisa Renee Lee describes learning about an instance of police violence as being akin to getting “punched in the face in a place where you’ve already been hit.”
Three years have passed since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But while the widespread protests against police violence in the United States have quieted, the pain Black people experience when a police officer injures or kills a Black person persists. Black people in America are killed by the police at three times the rate of their white counterparts. And the number of deaths has remained consistent from year to year.
Victims and their families, as well as bystanders, are often psychologically scarred by these events. But there is evidence that the millions of Black people indirectly exposed to police violence are affected, too. In a 2021 study, researchers examined emergency room data from hospitals across five states, finding a correlation between police killings of unarmed Black people and a rise in depression-related E.R. visits among Black people.
It’s hard to measure the individual toll these events take on mental health. The New York Times dispatched reporters in more than 20 U.S. cities to interview 110 Black people, across generations and socioeconomic groups, about how acts of police violence affect them. The Times also commissioned Morning Consult, a polling company, to survey Black adults in the United States about what they feel, and how they cope, when they learn that a police officer has hurt or killed a Black person.
While more than half of respondents reported feeling ongoing sadness, anger and fear about police violence, the survey also found that Black people feel more safe than unsafe when they see a police officer. (As the numbers below illustrate, a portion also report feeling anxious when they see an officer.)
Many people The Times interviewed shared personal experiences of excessive force and harassment by the police; others talked about well-known cases — like those of Rodney King and Eric Garner — from years ago.
These stories are not exhaustive. But they illustrate the myriad ways Black people in America grapple, often quietly, with continuing threats of police violence.“There’s always one case that kind of sticks with you,” said KT Kennedy, 28, a youth and community organizer from Brooklyn, N.Y. “I feel like we’re all specifically haunted by one murder at least.”
Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
of Black adults say it’s harder to get through daily tasks after learning that officers have harmed a Black person.
Restaurant server, Alton, Ill.
“If I get pulled over now, I know exactly what’s going to happen. I’m going to have an anxiety attack,” said Jamal Jones, 23. About two years ago, as he was driving out of a parking lot, a police officer arrived and Jones had trouble breathing. The woman he was with grabbed his hand to help calm him, he said.
Career coach and consultant, Metro Atlanta, Ga.
“I clicked the link and viewed it,” said Keisha Edwards, 45, of watching footage of the killing of George Floyd. “It was right before I had a work meeting, and I had to pretend that I hadn’t just witnessed what I had just watched.”
Program coordinator, San Francisco, Calif.
“You’re always on alert, you’re always on guard, you know, your blood pressure is up, your heart rate goes up and stuff like that.”
College student, West Palm Beach, Fla.
“Sad to say, it’s almost like I’ve become numb to it. And then I feel guilty about being numb to it.”
of Black people said they feel anxious when they see an officer.
Founder and executive director, Word is Bond, Portland, Ore.
“We’re in a constant trauma combustion chamber, and you have to build systems and practices to deal with it. And how I do that is building networks with my friends — groups of friends that are Black men — we can go do things and hang out, physical things like walking, weight lifting, exercise and talking through things.”
Pamela D. Hall,
Associate professor of psychology, Barry University, Miami Shores, Fla.
“God gives you other resources and tools to get your way out. And one of those things is if he sends you a good therapist.”
Hip Hop Artist and director, One Lexington, Lexington, Ky.
“When I’m driving and my 6-year-old daughter sees a police officer and says, ‘Oh, Daddy, the police is going to get us. They going to arrest us,’ I’ve had to self check myself,” said Devine Camara, 42. “That’s how embedded that fear is into our community. Somehow I passed it on and I don’t even realize.”
Jessica Hope Murrell Berryman,
Business development liaison, Durham, N.C.
“They don’t flinch anymore whenever they hear these things,” said Jessica Hope Murrell Berryman, 38, a mother of three children. “And that is what mentally disturbs me as a parent.”
of Black parents said police violence affects their mental health.
Jennifer Shepard Payne,
Research scientist and clinician, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Columbia, Md.
“Watching the George Floyd video left me with a hot rage, which was unnerving to me because I am never an angry person. That rage lasted for a week and was so intense that I prayed to God to relieve me of it.”
Business sales, Bronx, N.Y.
“Usually I try to disassociate a little bit, maybe watch something else, turn the TV off, talk to some friends. I also have a therapist, I’ll talk with them and, you know, work through feelings.”
Non-profit executive director, Chicago, Ill.
“I never slept better in my life as a parent than when he was in China,” said Angela Ford, the mother of a 34-year-old son who lived overseas for 10 years. “When he came back, he and I agreed that he wouldn’t own a car. I could not take the stress of him possibly being murdered. I couldn’t take it.”
Pastor, Aurora, Colo.
“I’m saddened more than anything,” Thomas Mayes, 70, said of his experience watching videos of police violence. “I don’t feel anger would even fit in there. I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed. It’s one of the saddest feelings I ever get. It’s hard to fight back the tears.”
Student, New Orleans, La.
“I don’t think I have any mental health issues related to police violence. I just feel like I have to fix the problem.”
of Black adults cope by talking to a friend or family member.
Youth and community organizer, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I lean on other folks in this community who are doing similar work,” said KT Kennedy, 28, a youth and community organizer. “Usually they don’t have answers. But we laugh and we chill. It’s important to think of community safety, especially being Black and queer, and that just really looks like joy.”
Reentry specialist for the formerly incarcerated, Aurora, Colo.
“I’ve learned to detach myself a bit so it’s less stressful.”
Pastor, Minneapolis, Minn.
“I just pray for peace and comfort for the family. I don’t want to have a heart of bitterness.”
Photographer, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“There’s a lot of repression that exists, so it can lead to bursts of anger,” said Sammy Deigh, 38. At one point Deigh switched to seeing a Black therapist, which led to a personal realization: “I’m not looking for sympathy. I just want to be seen.”
discussed police violence with a mental health care professional. Slightly more spoke with a religious leader.
Cultural broker, Somali American Parent Association, Minneapolis, Minn.
“I’m taking care of my mental health because I’m privileged that way. I’m meditating. I’m talking to a therapist. I’m reading books and listening to a podcast. I have friends — we get together and we are all single moms with Black sons. We form a support system.”
Karsonya Wise Whitehead,
Professor of communication and African and African American studies, Loyola University, Baltimore, Md.
“I do watch it multiple times,” said Karsonya Wise Whitehead, 54, of footage of police violence. “For the first few days, I am unable to sleep. I find that I am more on guard and more likely to take offense. My entire body feels like it is in pain. I am stressed.”
Student, Los Angeles, Calif.
“Sometimes I wave at the police officers to show them that I’m a nice bystander. They usually don’t affect me.”
Retired Maryland correctional officer, Baltimore, Md.
“I lived in a fog for a very long time. I thought I was in a dream, in a nightmare,” said Greta Willis, 59, whose 14-year-old son, Kevin L. Cooper, was fatally shot by a police officer in 2006 after she called to get assistance for him during a mental health crisis, “until I realized that this was reality.”
of Black adults say their ability to cope has stayed the same or gotten worse over time.
Marisa Renee Lee,
Former deputy of private sector engagement, Obama administration, Hudson Valley, N.Y.
“I try as much as possible, when these things happen, to create space for grief and to give myself permission to grieve.”
Licensed mental health counselor, Winter Haven, Fla.
“I remember seeing the lights, the color of the officer that pulled me over, and I remember immediately putting my hands out of the window,” said Cortina Louis, 39, of her experience being pulled over in 2019. “I was shaking, I felt like I was almost hyperventilating, I was scared to my core.”
Louis said that in 2020 she had to take days off from her work as a mental health counselor “because it was emotionally exhausting and overwhelming. I found myself uncontrollably crying, because my heart was aching.”
Chief executive officer, Perception Institute, Louisville, Ky.
“I think there’s too much trauma in my house to talk about it.”
Freelance plus-size model, Oakland, Calif.
“For 48 hours people care, and then all of a sudden, it’s like nothing again. And that’s exhausting.”
Phlebotomist, Alton, Ill.
“I can’t watch the videos anymore. I hear about it, but I can never go and watch it,” Simeon Brown, 25, said. “It does too much on my mental health to even try to sit through a video.”
Part of the reason they affect him so deeply, he noted, is that when there’s a crime, officers are the first line of defense. “Now I’m afraid if I call, I may be a victim,” he said.