When a Black person is killed by police, Karsonya Wise Whitehead watches the footage even though it causes her physical pain. Derrick Benson reviews the details of new cases to try to understand what might have happened to his brother, who was killed in police custody. Marisa Renee Lee describes learning about an instance of police violence as being akin to being “punched in the face in a place where you’ve already been hit.”
Three years have passed since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But while the widespread protests against police violence in the United States have quieted, the pain Black people experience when a police officer injures or kills a Black person persists. Black people in America are killed by police at three times the rate of their white counterparts. And the number of deaths has remained consistent from year to year.
Victims and their families, as well as bystanders, are often psychologically scarred by these events. But there is evidence that the millions of Black people indirectly exposed to police violence are affected, too. In a 2021 study, researchers examined emergency room data from hospitals across five states, finding a correlation between police killings of unarmed Black people and a rise in depression-related ER visits among Black people.
It’s hard to measure the individual toll these events take on mental health. The New York Times dispatched reporters in more than 20 U.S. cities to interview 110 Black people, across generations and socioeconomic groups, about how acts of police violence affect them. The Times also commissioned Morning Consult, a polling company, to survey Black adults in the United States about what they feel, and how they cope, when they learn that a police officer has hurt or killed a Black person.
While more than half of respondents reported feeling ongoing sadness, anger and fear about police violence, the survey also found that Black people feel more safe than unsafe when they see a police officer. A portion also report feeling anxious when they see an officer.
Many people The Times interviewed shared personal experiences of excessive force and harassment by the police; others talked about well-known cases — like those of Rodney King and Eric Garner — from years ago.
These stories are not exhaustive. But they illustrate the myriad ways Black people in America grapple, often quietly, with continuing threats of police violence. “There’s always one case that kind of sticks with you,” said KT Kennedy, 28, a youth and community organizer from Brooklyn. “I feel like we’re all specifically haunted by one murder at least.”
Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
JAMAL JONES, 23; restaurant server, Alton, Illinois:
“If I get pulled over now, I know exactly what’s going to happen. I’m going to have an anxiety attack.” About two years ago, as Jones was driving out of a parking lot, a police officer arrived and Jones had trouble breathing. The woman he was with grabbed his hand to help calm him, he said.
KEISHA EDWARDS, 45; career coach and consultant, Metro Atlanta:
“I clicked the link and viewed it,” she said of watching footage of George Floyd’s killing. “It was right before I had a work meeting, and I had to pretend that I hadn’t just witnessed what I had just watched.”
DERRICK BENSON, 49; program coordinator, San Francisco:
“You’re always on alert, you’re always on guard, you know, your blood pressure is up, your heart rate goes up and stuff like that.”
CHEYENNE HAMILTON, 24; college student, West Palm Beach, Florida:
“Sad to say, it’s almost like I’ve become numb to it. And then I feel guilty about being numb to it.”
LAKAYANA DRURY, 34; founder and executive director, Word Is Bond, Portland, Oregon:
“We’re in a constant trauma combustion chamber, and you have to build systems and practices to deal with it. And how I do that is building networks with my friends — groups of friends that are Black men — we can go do things and hang out, physical things like walking, weight lifting, exercise and talking through things.”
PAMELA D. HALL, 59; associate professor of psychology, Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida:
“God gives you other resources and tools to get your way out. And one of those things is he sends you a good therapist.”
DEVINE CAMARA, 42; hip-hop artist and director, One Lexington in Kentucky:
“When I’m driving and my 6-year-old daughter sees a police officer and says: ‘Oh, Daddy, the police is going to get us. They going to arrest us,’ I’ve had to self check myself. That’s how embedded that fear is into our community. Somehow I passed it on and I don’t even realize.”
JESSICA HOPE MURRELL BERRYMAN, 38; business development liaison, Durham, North Carolina:
“They don’t flinch anymore whenever they hear these things,” said Berryman, a mother of three children. “And that is what mentally disturbs me as a parent.”
JENNIFER SHEPARD PAYNE, 58; research scientist and clinician, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Columbia, Maryland:
“Watching the George Floyd video left me with a hot rage, which was unnerving to me because I am never an angry person. That rage lasted for a week and was so intense that I prayed to God to relieve me of it.”
MICHAEL JONES, 37; business sales, the Bronx, New York:
“Usually I try to disassociate a little bit, maybe watch something else, turn the TV off, talk to some friends. I also have a therapist, I’ll talk with them and, you know, work through feelings.”
ANGELA FORD, 58; nonprofit executive director, Chicago:
“I never slept better in my life as a parent than when he was in China,” said Ford, whose adult son lived overseas for 10 years. “When he came back, he and I agreed that he wouldn’t own a car. I could not take the stress of him possibly being murdered. I couldn’t take it.”
SENYA AISOLA, 18; student, New Orleans:
“I don’t think I have any mental health issues related to police violence. I just feel like I have to fix the problem.”
THOMAS MAYES, 70; pastor, Aurora, Colorado:
“I’m saddened more than anything,” Mayes said of watching videos of police violence. “I don’t feel anger would even fit in there. I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed. It’s one of the saddest feelings I ever get. It’s hard to fight back the tears.”
KT KENNEDY, 28; youth and community organizer, Brooklyn, New York:
“I lean on other folks in this community who are doing similar work. Usually they don’t have answers. But we laugh and we chill. It’s important to think of community safety, especially being Black and queer, and that just really looks like joy.”
TAJ ASHAHEED, 53; reentry specialist for the formerly incarcerated, Aurora, Colorado:
“I’ve learned to detach myself a bit so it’s less stressful.”
DANIEL McKIZZIE, 65; pastor, Minneapolis:
“I just pray for peace and comfort for the family. I don’t want to have a heart of bitterness.”
SAMMY DEIGH, 38; photographer, Brooklyn, New York:
“There’s a lot of repression that exists, so it can lead to bursts of anger.” At one point Deigh switched to seeing a Black therapist, which led to a personal realization: “I’m not looking for sympathy. I just want to be seen.”
ANISA ALI, 39; cultural broker, Somali American Parent Association, Minneapolis:
“I’m taking care of my mental health because I’m privileged that way. I’m meditating. I’m talking to a therapist. I’m reading books and listening to a podcast. I have friends — we get together and we are all single moms with Black sons. We form a support system.”
KARSONYA WISE WHITEHEAD, 54; professor of communication and African and African American studies, Loyola University, Baltimore:
“I do watch it multiple times,” Whitehead said of footage of police violence. “For the first few days, I am unable to sleep. I find that I am more on guard and more likely to take offense. My entire body feels like it is in pain. I am stressed.”
MALCOLM CLAYBORNE, 16; student, Los Angeles:
“Sometimes I wave at the police officers to show them that I’m a nice bystander. They usually don’t affect me.”
GRETA WILLIS, 59; retired Maryland correctional officer, Baltimore.
“I lived in a fog for a very long time. I thought I was in a dream, in a nightmare,” said Willis, whose 14-year-old son, Kevin L. Cooper, was fatally shot by a police officer in 2006 after she called to get assistance for him during a mental health crisis, “until I realized that this was reality.”
MARISA RENEE LEE, 40; former deputy of private sector engagement, Obama administration, New York’s Hudson Valley region:
“I try as much as possible, when these things happen, to create space for grief and to give myself permission to grieve.”
CORTINA LOUIS, 39; licensed mental health counselor, Winter Haven, Florida:
“I remember seeing the lights, the color of the officer that pulled me over, and I remember immediately putting my hands out of the window,” she said of being pulled over in 2019. “I was shaking, I felt like I was almost hyperventilating, I was scared to my core.”
Louis said that in 2020 she had to take days off from work “because it was emotionally exhausting and overwhelming.” She added, “I found myself uncontrollably crying, because my heart was aching.”
SADIQA REYNOLDS, 51; chief executive, Perception Institute, Louisville, Kentucky:
“I think there’s too much trauma in my house to talk about it.”
ELIJAH CYRUS, 29; freelance model, Oakland, California:
“For 48 hours people care, and then all of a sudden it’s like nothing again. And that’s exhausting.”
SIMEON BROWN, 25; phlebotomist, Alton, Illinois:
“I can’t watch the videos anymore. I hear about it, but I can never go and watch it,” he said. “It does too much on my mental health to even try to sit through a video.” Part of the reason they affect him so deeply, he noted, is that when there is a crime, officers are the first line of defense. “Now I’m afraid if I call, I may be a victim.”
Findings from the Morning Consult survey:
79% of Black parents said police violence affects their mental health.
71% of Black adults say their ability to cope has stayed the same or gotten worse over time.
69% of Black adults cope by talking to a friend or family member.
44% of Black adults say it’s harder to get through daily tasks after learning that officers have harmed a Black person.
38% of Black people said they feel anxious when they see an officer.
22% discussed police violence with a mental health care professional. Slightly more spoke with a religious leader.