Policing & the Anxiety of Black Injustice

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Modern day police mentality can be traced back to the Slave Patrols, established in the Carolinas in the early 1700s, with the purpose of returning runaway slaves to their owners.

Why did American policing get so big, so fast? The answer, mainly, is slavery.

Jill Lepore, The new yorker
Bloomberg, The Guardian, Mapping Police Violence

Modern American policing began in 1909, when August Vollmer became the chief of the police department in Berkeley, California. Vollmer-era police enforced Jim Crow laws. Vollmer believed in hereditary criminality and belonged to the American Eugenics Society. He also believed in prohibiting people with disabilities from integrating into society. “During Vollmer’s time, Black people were patrolled, arrested, and indicted at disproportionate rates. After all this, social scientists, observing the number of Black people in jail, decided that, as a matter of biology, Black people were disproportionately inclined to criminality.” – The New Yorker

Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people.

2013-2023; 7.08 killings per 1 million population/year

Most Killings by Police Begin With:

  1. Traffic Stops
  2. Mental health checks
  3. Disturbances
  4. Non-violent offenses
  5. No alleged crime

Perception vs. Reality

What People Think: “Most deaths at the hands of police are not the result of cops responding to or trying to prevent a murder. They occur when cops are doing other police work such as making a traffic stop, or raiding a home.” 

Reality: Multiple studies have shown that police reports tend to favor the police. They also imply that the deceased was the aggressor. “When interacting with Black people, police officers seem more likely to see innocuous movements — or even efforts to comply with their orders — as threatening.” – Washington Post

98% of killings by police from 2013 to 2022 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime. 97% of people killed by police in 2022 involved shootings. Tasers, physical force and law-enforcement vehicles for most other deaths.

Source: Mapping Police Violence

“Cops may shoot and kill twice as many white people as Black, but there are about 6x as many white people as Black people in the United States.” Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate.

Source: Washington Post

Black people are more likely to be unarmed and less likely to be threatening someone when killed by police.

Police violence report

The Old Hollywood Cop Myth Machine

“For a century, Hollywood has been collaborating with police departments, telling stories that whitewash police shootings and valorize an action-hero
style of policing.” – Washington Post

Film and television portrayals of Black individuals committing crimes affects the larger public’s perception of Black people. 

blake edwards
Acting Black: An Analysis of Blackness
and Criminality in Film (2019)

Prosecutor Demographics by Race

The most common ethnicity among prosecutors is white, which makes up 75.3% of all prosecutors. Comparatively, 7.9% of prosecutors are Hispanic, 6.5% of prosecutors are Asian, and 5.6% are Black. – Zippia

How Negative Encounters with the Police Affect Mental Health

  • Racism disproportionately exposes people who are Black, and other people of color, to police brutality. For example, they are more likely than whites to be stopped; arrested; injured; psychologically, sexually, and emotionally assaulted; and killed by the police. – Sage Journals
  • Higher exposure to negative encounters with the police leads to higher levels of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. – Sage Journals

I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed—which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished. 

Howard Zinn, historian

Mental Health Portrayals in Television & Film

TV Tackles Race-Based Trauma (And Some Shows That Got It Right)

We need accurate stories that reflect the systemic lack of access to care for some Black people. But we also need stories of successful treatment and psychiatric interventions as a brave step to save a life, rather than a source of shame.


There are hybrid crisis-intervention programs emerging around the U.S. to handle responses for mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness, along with non-criminal, non-emergency police and medical calls. Contact HH&S to learn more. 

HH&S can connect writers with experts, and people with lived experiences to help inform scripts and stories. Contact us at hhs@usc.edu or
(213) 764-2704.