For Jonathan Norman, every encounter with the police is a tense experience.
“Every time — hands get sweaty, you get nervous, heart racing,” said Norman, who is Black. “Even just driving past [the police], you get a feeling of anxiousness and not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Being pulled over by the police is “a moment you hear about but can never prepare for,” Norman said.
The 18-year-old senior at Dyett High School said not even “the talk” his parents gave him when he was young, about how to interact with police, helps when he hears the siren behind him.
He added that police presence is common in his Auburn Gresham neighborhood, on Chicago’s South Side. “There’s a police officer or a squad car almost on every corner,” he said. “They say they got reason to believe X-Y-Z and need to search your car. You’re in your own neighborhood — you get pulled over for what?”
Norman’s views are not unlike those of many Black youth who encounter police on a regular basis.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, exposure to police — even when the officers are providing assistance — may be detrimental to the well-being of Black youth, especially males.
Dr. Monique Jindal, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago, led the research — a systematic review of nearly 30 studies that included a total of almost 20,000 participants — while she was a pediatric fellow at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.
Jindal said the adverse effects of police exposure on Black youth are widespread, ranging from mental health issues like anxiety or depression, risky physical behaviors and “an impaired sense of safety.”
She said that impaired safety came about in the form of direct maltreatment — physical, verbal or sexual abuse — from police, but also “an overall feeling that [they] don’t have someone that’s there to take care of [them]. … [They] can’t rely on this social institution.”
Jindal said many of the subjects in the studies she reviewed also lost their “future orientation — feeling hopeless, really questioning their own identity, wondering if they are allowed to be a child, and what is really in store for them in society.”
Researchers also found that police exposure increased the likelihood of Black youth engaging in risky sexual behaviors, as well as substance use. Some qualitative evidence indicated transgender adolescent girls and young women reported avoiding carrying condoms because of fear of police arresting them for being sex workers.
Jindal said the research has implications for her own field. “First and foremost, we have to recognize police exposure and police contact as a critical determinant of health,” she said. “We have to be willing to screen for it, to understand that it can have negative impacts, to understand that it can affect a child’s mental health, and then refer them to the necessary services.”
She said more research is needed to find interventions for Black youth, and that policymakers should start “reimagining how we can keep them safe.” She added that data on police presence in schools show negative outcomes for children of color that “[facilitate] that school-to-prison pipeline.” Jindal called on cities to innovate crisis intervention programs that utilize community members and mental health professionals instead of relying on police response.
The JAMA Pediatrics study was a literature review of scientific research between 1980 and 2020 that showed a link between police exposure and health outcomes for young Black people.
“In some ways, nothing has changed” in those 40 years, she said. “If you look at quotes from our earliest studies to some from the more recent, you’re seeing a lot of the same information — a lot of the same feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, withdrawing from people around them, just feeling really alienated from society.”
Jonathan Norman, the 18-year-old senior at Dyett, who once thought about joining the police force after the death of Sandra Bland, said he is more skeptical of cops now than ever. With the exception of some “good guys,” he is not hopeful about the profession, which he says has not changed from “before I was even born.”
He added: “People have been chanting and marching and doing all this peaceful stuff, and it’s not changing.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @estheryjkang.