police cars lined up.

Health Justice and the Criminal Legal System: From Reform to Transformation

By Aysha Pamukcu and Angela P. Harris

Using health justice to reframe and reshape the criminal legal system

The demand to “defund the police,” circulated by the Movement for Black Lives and allies after the brutal 2020 murder of George Floyd, was a departure from the usual discourse of police reform. The demand garnered backlash as being both politically unrealistic and potentially dangerous. But in our view, it demonstrates the transformative potential of social movements focused on justice for marginalized communities. As these justice movements build and strengthen partnerships with public health and civil rights advocates, we see the potential of using the health justice framework to reimagine the future of the criminal legal system.

Calls to deploy the American criminal legal system to enforce national health anxieties are not new, but they too often have produced unjust outcomes, such as adopting criminal punishments for people who are HIV-positive or who are dependent on drugs and pregnant.

In contrast, the health justice framework centers the leadership of social movements for justice and inclusion. Such movements have the capacity to rapidly shift the terms of public debate, making previously unimaginable policy initiatives first discussable, and then doable. And centered in values of anti-subordination, justice movements can challenge biases within elite, highly professionalized disciplines like law and public health.

Policy innovations that emerge from this triple alliance of law, public health, and social movements stand a better chance of improving the lives of marginalized communities than those that treat these communities as targets of discipline or charity. The call to defund the police demonstrates some of these possibilities.

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Blue house in grass field.

Community-Based Response to Intimate Partner Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Leigh Goodmark

Intimate partner violence has been called “a pandemic within the pandemic.”

A study of fourteen American cities found that the number of domestic violence calls to law enforcement rose 9.7% in March and April 2020, compared to the previous year. A hospital-based study spanning the same time period found significant increases in the number of people treated for injuries related to intimate partner violence. And a 2021 review of 18 studies relying on data from police, domestic violence hotlines, and health care providers found that reports of intimate partner violence increased 8% after lockdown orders were imposed.

Although almost half of people subjected to abuse never call the state for assistance, our responses to intimate partner violence are largely embedded within the state and rely heavily on law enforcement. A disproportionate amount of funding under the Violence Against Women Act — by one estimate, 85% — is directed to the criminal legal system. A growing number of activists skeptical of state intervention are arguing that responses beyond the carceral state are essential.

The pandemic showed that community-based supports, like pod mapping, mutual aid, and community accountability, originally developed by activists critical of law enforcement responses to violence, can foster safety and accountability without requiring state intervention. The pandemic could spur advocates seeking to distance themselves from state-based responses to expand their services.

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St. Paul, Minnesota /US - June 4, 2020: Police throand protestors during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Research and Regulation of Less-Lethal Projectiles Critically Needed

By Rohini Haar and Brian Castner

In 2020, the use of less-lethal weapons in the United States, already overused, took a sharp upturn during the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests. In response, last month, the U.S. House of Representatives formed a commission of inquiry to investigate the health effects of one such weapon: tear gas. Such research is welcome and badly needed. However, tear gas is only part of a larger story. While well-intentioned, the House missed an opportunity to address a wider and more dangerous issue: the use of “less-lethal” projectiles against crowds.

In protecting basic human rights and civil liberties, it is critical to better understand and regulate projectiles — they are dangerous and poorly studied weapons.

Regardless of their specific characteristics, all less-lethal projectiles work by the same principle: they inflict blunt trauma, pain, and intimidation on individuals, while attempting to limit the chances of death or disability as compared to live ammunition. While the weapons certainly do cause shock and pain, avoiding death and disability has not been so straightforward.

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Police car.

Police Should Not Be Enforcing Emergency Public Health Orders

Cross-posted from COVID-19 and The Law, where it originally appeared on November 9, 2020. 

By Daniel Polonsky

On a weekend when police officers were handing masks to white residents in parks around New York City, NYPD Officer Francisco Garcia forced Donni Wright, a 33-year-old Black man, to the ground and knelt on his neck. Officer Garcia was one of 1,000 NYPD officers dispatched to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing. He had been investigating a report of individuals not wearing masks, although he himself was not wearing one. Police Chief Terence Monahan had previously assured reporters that the police would be educating the public and only breaking up large gatherings, not bothering individuals merely walking outside—“They don’t have a mask, we’ll give them a mask.” But Officer Garcia, who has settled six lawsuits for police misconduct for a combined $182,500, did more than educate that day. Multiple officers were in the middle of arresting two individuals after allegedly spotting a bag of marijuana when Mr. Wright spoke up in their defense. In response, Officer Garcia called him a racial epithet and accosted him, causing severe injuries to Mr. Wright’s back, ribs, and chest. What started as social distancing enforcement ended in racist, excessive use of force.

This incident highlights the overlap between the twin crises state and local governments face: halting the spread of COVID-19 and grappling with the systemic racism that characterizes the American system of policing.

Click here to read the full post on COVID-19 and The Law.

Police cars.

Law as a Determinant of Police Violence

By Osagie K. Obasogie

One idea that distinguishes public health from medicine and other health sciences is the social determinants of health. This concept emphasizes the environmental conditions that give rise to health outcomes — poverty, lack of access to resources, exposures to contaminants, etc. — rather than locating disease solely in biological or physiological processes bounded by human bodies. Following this lead, public health interventions are often focused on community practices that can improve the spaces in which people live. The public health approach is refreshingly simple: healthy communities and environments produce healthy people.

A public health framework for understanding how police and policing impact community health outcomes is necessary as we continue to have wide-ranging conversations about excessive use of force. Improving the health of local communities involves rethinking the laws that govern how police interact with the people they serve.

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Woman holding sign that reads "I can't breathe."

Black Women Can’t Breathe

By Michele Goodwin

Years before George Floyd begged to be released from under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, Barbara Dawson, a fifty-seven year old Black woman, died begging a police officer, John Tadlock, not to remove her oxygen mask. Her death occurred right outside the Calhoun Liberty Hospital in Blountstown, Florida, shortly before Christmas in 2015.

Just before Officer Tadlock’s arrival, Ms. Dawson arrived at the hospital seeking oxygen. The hospital’s response to Ms. Dawson’s request was to call law enforcement. Photographs show Ms. Dawson slumped next to the police car. A police recording captures the tragic end of Ms. Dawson’s life. Officer Tadlock reprimands Ms. Dawson: “Falling down like this and laying down, that’s not going to stop you from going to jail.”

Ms. Dawson’s life ended on the pavement, feet away from the entrance of the hospital that phoned the police on their patient — because she refused to leave. She lay there nearly twenty minutes before being pronounced dead. It turns out she had a blood clot in her lungs.

In some sense, there is nothing extraordinary about the image of Ms. Dawson, or the interactions of the hospital and officer, which further complicates the deadly exchange. Indeed, the interaction was far too normal: Black women fear for their health and safety when they do not seek care and, troublingly, even when they do.

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swarm of media and tv cameras

The Hidden Cost of Misinformation: Harms from Opioid Hysteria Extend Beyond Overdose Deaths

Fentanyl is a potent opioid analgesic and has been the center of the opioid and overdose epidemic. As an illicit agent, fentanyl is often in the form of a powder, which is then either insufflated (the fancy medical term for snorting) or dissolved in water and injected intravenously. It is fifty to one-hundred times more potent than heroin, the drug it replaced as the illicit opioid of choice. It can cause significant euphoria and analgesia, which is why it is so widely used. It can also cause respiratory depression or complete respiratory arrest, the reason it can be so deadly. It is readily absorbed when insufflated or injected and the actions are almost immediate. These are the facts.

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Image of the backs of two police officers

Security and Health: Police as Key Players in Public Health

For more than a decade, a variety of scholars and practitioners in public health, policing and the broader domain of security have been stoking a conversation about the links between their disciplines and the need to do a better job integrating the disciplines and practices.

This week, The Lancet published a special series on Security and Health. A global set of authors, myself included, make the case that military and police forces should be recognized as key players, rather than intruders, in public health, and therefore we need these relationships to be backed by investment in partnerships and reform. Take a look. You may even be inspired to put the next global Law Enforcement and Public Health Conference on your agenda, set for Edinburgh in October.

 

Police and Public Health in Partnership

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law recently conducted a web discussion of steps to implement the Commission’s recommendations for better harmonizing law and HIV control.  One of the questions for discussion was:

What are examples of innovative or non-traditional partnerships that can be used to strategically advance human-rights based responses to HIV … ?

 

Nick Crofts posted an interesting essay elaborating on “three falacies”:

  • that police are merely passive implementers of the law; so that if the law is reformed, police attitudes and behaviours towards MARP communities will automatically fall in line;
  • that police are the enemy, and that their behaviours are not amenable to change without confrontation; and/or
  • that training and sensitization of police is adequate to change behaviours of police towards MARP communities.

I agree with him, and have seen these beliefs hinder action for a long time. Nick has some interesting thoughts about ways to move forward. He also talked about the work of The Law Enforcement and HIV Network (LEAHN) , which is working to bride the gap between police and public health agencies. It’s worth a few minutes to read it.

LEAHN is sponsoring its second global conference next Spring in Amsterdam.