The Impact on Black Americans of Viewing Police Violence
An experience of vicarious trauma, whether they are the victim or not.
Posted March 29, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- There is a paucity of studies examining the relationship between police violence and vicarious trauma.
- Research indicates a significant relationship between police violence and vicarious trauma.
- Black women are almost twice as likely to be vicariously traumatized by police violence than Black men.
- Of all forms of exposure to police violence, only seeing a video was significantly related to vicarious trauma.
by Garrick Beauliere, Psy.D., Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Vicarious trauma is sometimes referred to as secondary trauma. Motta et al. (2001) defined secondary trauma as a disturbing emotional experience due to discovering traumatic events from another person. Vicarious trauma is typically explored within helping professions, such as police officers, nurses, and therapists, because of the population they are constantly exposed to in their roles. Symptoms of vicarious trauma may include, but are not limited to, feeling emotionally numb, sleeping difficulties, irritability, feeling hopeless, withdrawing from personal relationships, interpersonal conflicts, somatic issues (aches and pains), increased distractibility, and changes in mood. Despite the symptoms the vicariously traumatized individual endorses, their view of the world is inevitably shifted/altered due to the repeated exposure of the trauma.
Police Violence and Trauma Exposed
Exploring vicarious trauma within the context of police violence among Black people who have not directly experienced police violence can start new conversations about the impact of police violence in the Black community. Police violence is a tragic experience that has disproportionately plagued generations of Black Americans. Viral footage of Black people killed by the police, such as Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tyre Nichols, Rayshard Brooks, and George Floyd, to name a few, are then circulated throughout the media.
In May 2020, George Floyd was arguably the most high-profile victim of police violence. Floyd’s death, like that of Scott, Garner, and Rice, went viral across the nation as an officer had his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd’s recorded death accumulated 2.5 million views in 12 hours. According to a spokeswoman for the city of Memphis, the video of Tyre Nicholas had 1.7 million views within 17 hours of its release. Images and videos of police violence have never been as pervasive, as evidenced by social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and the internet. The constant exposure of these videos on various media platforms can increase a Black person’s susceptibility to experience vicarious trauma by being traumatized after being exposed to the fatal event. A Black person who directly experiences police violence may be triggered by their own experience, but little to no discussions have explored the effect on a Black person who never had those personal experiences yet is indirectly affected due to constant exposure to the violence of the direct victim. Police violence toward Black people is the focal point, but the individuals indirectly impacted should also be considered.
My recent study (Beauliere, 2022) assessed vicarious trauma in Black people who never experienced police violence. According to the study, there is a significant relationship between police violence and vicarious trauma among Black people. The more individuals saw a video of a Black person killed by a police officer, their chances of having vicarious trauma increased, and Black women (18 years and older) were almost twice as vulnerable to being vicariously traumatized than Black men. Higher levels of adverse psychological effects have been found among women and girls (Beauliere, 2022; Turney, 2020; Tynes et al.2019).
Vicarious trauma can impact anyone's quality of life, and consistently seeing and hearing trauma is not optimal for anyone’s mental health. That person may feel emotionally uneasy and have difficulties concentrating regardless of whether the individual directly experiences the trauma. Police violence in the United States is not only a topic of discussion for criminal justice and psychology, but a public health issue as well. For Black Americans, the mental health burden of police killings (55 million poor mental health days) is almost as large as the mental health burden of diabetes (75 million poor mental health days). The effects of Black people being indirectly exposed to police violence can include “heightened perceptions of threat and vulnerability, lack of fairness, lower social status, lower beliefs about one’s own worth, activation of prior traumas, and identification with the deceased” (Bor, et al., 2018).
In the clinical setting, clinicians must understand that, whatever the reason of referral may be, the emotional and psychological challenges can be exacerbated if individuals were exposed to police violence. Addressing the intersectionality of a Black woman, and any other identity she chooses to identify, when exploring trauma such as police violence may produce dialogue about the issue for a cathartic experience. Clinicians must take into consideration that Black men may not express their pain or they may express it through anger and/or irritability. Therefore, clinicians should be intentional in providing a space for Black men to be vulnerable for them to share any emotional pain they may feel. Both Black men and women must feel they are safe for their vulnerability to be revealed before exploring their subjective experience of being vicariously traumatized by police violence.
For employers, one suggestion is allowing mental health days off for Black workers when the news of a Black victim of police violence is reported. Another suggestion is providing therapy options, so those Black workers have an option for a safe space with a mental health professional.
Limiting the actual videos and images of Black people murdered by police officers can help alleviate some of the vicarious trauma symptoms, since the public will not see it as much. This is not to suggest limiting news coverage of police violence, because the public should be informed of the malice caused by a police officer, but showing police violence has proven to be a significant factor leading to adverse mental health effects. The media can report on police violence without showing it.
Advocating for this issue with politicians, public health experts, and within the field of psychology can give Black people the grace they need as they navigate their lives despite learning the news of another innocent member of their community being killed.
Motta, R. W., Hafeez, S., Sciancalepore, R., & Diaz, A. B. (2001). Discriminant validation of the modified secondary trauma questionnaire. J. Psychother. Indep. Pract. 24, 17–24.
Beauliere, G. I. (2022). Assessing vicarious trauma in black people who never experienced police violence (Order No. 28966162). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ Chicago School of Professional Psychology; ProQuest One Academic. (2642344062).
Bor, J., Venkataramani, A. S., Williams, D. R., & Tsai, A. C. (2018). Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of Black Americans: a population-based, quasi experimental study. The Lancet, 392(10144), 302–310. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140 6736(18)31130-9.