The Impact of Police Violence on Public Health


In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, numerous local governments and professional health associations have declared racism a threat to public health. 

This shift towards recognizing the impact of police violence and systemic racism on public health raises questions about causation and correlation. Is it merely a politically correct gesture, or is there a clear connection between police violence and public health outcomes?

A Paradigm Shift in Public Health

Historically, public health focused on individual behavior and responsibility, but that perspective has evolved. In 1979, the Surgeon General identified violence as a public health priority, signaling a change in how officials approached the issue. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first paper examined police violence as a public health problem and subsequent incidents of violence against unarmed Black individuals garnered widespread attention.

Social Determinants of Health

A key concept in understanding the connection between police violence and public health is the notion of Social Determinants of Health (SDOH). SDOH recognizes that various factors, beyond individual behavior, significantly influence health outcomes. Factors like zip codes, education, and racial profiling contribute to disparities in health and well-being.

Police Violence’s Impact on Public Health

Police violence affects entire communities, not just those directly involved. Negative encounters with the police, both lethal and non-lethal, can lead to inferior medical care. 

Mistrust in the healthcare system stemming from experiences with policing can result in delayed care and non-adherence to medical advice. The impact of police violence extends beyond physical harm and can have lasting effects on mental health and community well-being.

Racial Profiling and Biased Policing

Racial profiling and biased policing play a significant role in public health outcomes. Perceived threats from police based on race can have a detrimental effect on overall health and well-being. Studies show that racial profiling leads to disparities in traffic stops, searches, and unfair treatment. 

Unfair treatment by police can increase depression, anxiety, and trauma-like symptoms. Additionally, knowledge of police profiling can affect the health of pregnant Black women and lead to adverse birth outcomes.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Biased policing starts early in the form of biased discipline in schools. Racial disparities exist in how school police officers handle Black and minority students, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Racially biased discipline increases the likelihood of later involvement in the criminal justice system. This connection between school discipline and incarceration has significant implications for public health.

Racial Disparities in Incarceration and Health

The enormous racial disparities in incarceration rates have profound health effects. The impact of incarceration on health extends beyond individuals to entire communities. Communities with high rates of incarceration experience numerous health challenges, including mental health issues, diseases, and limited access to healthcare services.


The recognition of police violence as a public health issue stems from an understanding of social determinants of health and the broader impact of biased policing and racial profiling. Police violence not only affects the individuals directly involved but also has far-reaching consequences for communities and public health outcomes. Addressing these systemic issues is crucial for promoting health equity and improving overall well-being.

Jerome Puryear

Dr. Jerome Puryear Jr., MD, MBA, is a Health and Well-being coach and renowned Obesity in Medicine expert. With a holistic perspective on patient care, Dr. JP is dedicated to helping individuals maximize their health and well-being.