Have you ever been stopped by police and prayed they would be kind and fair?

In my mind, to avoid an adverse experience with law enforcement one must be a responsible citizen by being respectful of the police.

Then it was me. I was pulled over by the police. And, at that moment it occurred to me that even if I was on my best behavior I still, in many eyes, have no inherent rights as a citizen, or even as a human being. I am black.

We all know that police officers have tremendous power. We all know that while racism is a powerful motivator in police brutality, it is not the only motivating factor.

It is not just a black thing; it is more like a blue thing. Police officers are trained to use force. They are not trained to de-escalate a situation. Adrenaline also plays a part and many officers fail to manage their emotions and behaviors, exposing stress-related mental health issues that are quite prevalent in the law enforcement profession.

With the unacceptable combination of government-sanctioned power and a low moral compass, there is the possibility of a situation ending badly, even death.

The FBI “National Use-of-Force Data Collection, at fbi.gov, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at cdc.gov, log fatal shootings by police. But researchers acknowledge that their data is incomplete. In 2015, The Washington Post began documenting fatal police shootings. The data shows that Black Americans are killed at a much higher rate than white
Americans, and three times more likely to be victims of police use of force.

The tragic deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, both Black men murdered by white police officers, have brought to light long-standing inequalities. Often, the crime or alleged crime is not the factor for the use of force. Being black is the mitigating factor. Being Black can get you killed.

To change the culture of police brutality in our communities, I propose that these five programs be considered and implemented by police departments across the country:

  • A thorough screening of potential candidates, and continued screenings of current staff. Only those free of serious mental issues, including maladaptive personality traits, should be hired. All staff with anger management issues or those who have a problem managing their emotions must be referred to EAP. All staff must be required to see a mental health provider on an on-going basis until that provider deems it no longer clinically necessary.
  • Improving community relations. Police must be more involved in the neighborhoods in which they are charged to protect, most importantly when a crime is not in progress. This offers both the police and the community an opportunity to build valuable and trusting relationships.
  • Mandatory Training in de-escalation tactics. It is imperative that police officers use the least restrictive force to control a situation. In other words, if a citizen is down, hands in the sky, the answer is not to shoot them.
  • Initial and yearly training in cultural diversity, implicit bias, ethical thinking, and decision making.
  • Denying employment to officers fired or terminated or for whom resignation accepted after accusations of overuse of force or discriminatory practices. This addresses the “issue with gypsy police officers”.

The key to any changes must include promoting and ensuring the mental stability of police officers. There is no doubt, enormous stress and danger come with being a law enforcement officer, and often play a role in their actions.

July is Minority Mental Health Month – As a psychiatrist that has worked with all kinds of people, I know mental health programs that educate, promote awareness, prevention and provide treatment for job-related emotional fatigue and mental stress are imperative and must be an integral part of the dialogue for change. That is if we really want to heal the physical and mental wounds that have divided communities when it comes to police interactions with people of color.