How police brutality weighs on black Americans

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“It’s almost paranoia, a paranoia that there’s no safe place,” said Thomas Mayes, a 70-year-old pastor from Aurora, Colorado, who was responding to police brutality against black people.

When police officers injure or kill someone, the psychological effects can extend beyond those directly involved. As video footage spreads, viewers may see themselves or loved ones reflected in the victim.

In a 2021 study of emergency room data from hospitals in five states, researchers found a link between police killings of unarmed black people and a rise in depression-related emergency room visits among black people. A 2018 study found that black people exposed to news of police shootings in the states where they lived reported adverse mental health effects for up to three months after the shootings.

The research leads to a question: what is the personal impact behind these statistics?

To answer that, The New York Times spoke to 110 black people of different generations and socioeconomic groups in 20 US cities. My colleague and reporting partner Patia Braithwaite and I combed through the interviews and heard from people whose experiences ranged in intensity from numbness to panic attacks. Some people said they didn’t have the time or resources to deal with their emotions. Many were unsure how to handle this unique set of repeated circumstances.

We also partnered with Morning Consult, a polling firm, to survey more than 1,500 Black Americans about whether exposure to police brutality had affected their lives or their mental state.

The people featured in our article “The Toll of Police Violence on Black Mental Health” are just a small fraction of the many who shared their stories.

This four-month-long process of reporting and editing took its own emotional toll on Patia and me. We stepped away when the stories started to weigh heavily on us, but remained motivated to dive back in soon after. It was important to us to make sure that everyone involved was heard and given the attention they deserved, and that we were able to provide a balanced report.

We chose to tell these stories through intimate portraits. That allows you to see who these words are coming from, and we hope to interpret the world from their perspective, if only for a moment.

The black and white photo illustrations by photographer Cornell Watson provide a visual representation of the statistics. The faces of the people bring these vulnerable accounts to life and connect you to the human behind them.

The reality of police brutality is not new, so we wanted to focus on the emotional and psychological ripple effects of these incidents and explore how people who feel these effects deal with them as they go about their lives.

We hope you get a better understanding of the lasting impact beyond the headlines and video footage.

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