Aggressive Policing as a Public Health Issue

PAs, NPs, and other medical providers need to assess the health impact of high-impact policing on their patients and to advocate for change.

The medical field has paid increased attention to the negative health impacts of systemic racism, discrimination, poverty, and other societal forces that are known to cause poorer health. This includes awareness of the need to assess and address racial and other health disparities and focus on principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have moved beyond the framing of these issues as moral imperatives to understanding how they are related to individual and public health.

Discussion of the health harms of aggressive policing has also increased over the last 2 years, spurred by the frequent and well-publicized deaths of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). What has been viewed as a political issue is now understood as a public health/health inequity concern. Two articles that have helped change the way the medical community views these issues were published in 2021:  

Both of these pieces help illustrate the ongoing shift in how police violence and aggressive policing have specific and disproportionate impacts on communities of color.

The first article makes several key points in its assertion that policing concerns should be viewed as health issues. It begins with this statement:

“Marginalized communities have a long history of naming the systemic racism and harms of police violence to health and well-being and recognizing their roots in the oppression of Black and Indigenous communities.”

The article cites data indicating that BIPOC are far more likely to be killed by police than White Americans, noting that death at the hands of a police officer is the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men. Similarly, Black and Indigenous women are more likely to be killed by a police officer than their White counterparts.

The second article also looks at specific data related to the disparate impact of what is describes as the “overexposure” to aggressive policing strategies among Black communities, serving to increase already existing health disparities in such communities. The article authors noted:

“Indeed, aggressive policing strategies employed by law enforcement agencies across the country have been hypothesized to degrade health and well-being, even among people who themselves have not experienced contact with police. Perhaps even more important, aggressive policing is thought to contribute to significant population health inequities, as these practices are concentrated on — and thus exacerbate — the health challenges faced by racialized populations.”

The authors of the article cited data from an organization called Campaign Zero.3 This group’s website includes data that also helps demonstrated the negative impact of aggressive policing, or what they describe as “broken windows” policing. This form of policing has led to the overpolicing of communities of color with resulting excessive force, leading to unnecessary deaths.

“Meanwhile, the vast majority of arrests are for low-level, nonviolent activities in encounters that often escalate to deadly force. For example, in 2014, police killed at least 287 people who were involved in minor offenses and harmless activities like sleeping in parks, possessing drugs, looking “suspicious” or having a mental health crisis. These activities are often symptoms of underlying issues of drug addiction, homelessness, and mental illness, which should be treated by health care professionals and social workers rather than the police.”

These 3 examples of the evolving understanding of how to view police aggressiveness highlight the need for future research and data collection. They also highlight the need for PAs, nurse practitioners, and other medical providers to assess the health impact of high-impact policing on their patients and to advocate for changes to a policing system that results in furthering existing health disparities.


1. Fleming PJ, Lopez WD, Spolum M, Anderson RE, Reyes AG, Schulz AJ. Policing is a public health issue: the important role of health educators. Health Educ Behav. 2021:10901981211001010. doi:10.1177/10901981211001010

2. Esposito M, Larimore S, Lee H. Aggressive policing, health, and health equity. Health Policy Brief. Health Affairs. April 30, 2021. doi:10.1377/hpb20210412.997570.

3. Campaign Zero.

This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor