This story is from Stop and Frisk, a podcast production from WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting
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I will always remember my first time getting stopped by the police. I was 22, living in South Jersey, and was driving home from a movie date.
I remembered my parents giving me “the talk” many years ago: Keep both hands on the wheel, be compliant — always answer with “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” I was sweating a lot. I could barely keep my hands from shaking. My heart was racing, my stomach was queasy, and combined with the flashing red and blue lights, which illuminated the inside of my whole car, it almost felt like a near-death experience.
I thought about what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that summer. I feared that one wrong move — just fidgeting with my hands or legs — and that could be it. I would join a long line of unarmed Black men killed by the police.
During that police stop, I asked a lot of questions to myself: Does this officer see me as a threat? Was I being targeted? Did I have a right to defend myself if I thought my life was in danger? It turned out I had been stopped for a broken tail light. I didn’t even get a ticket. A few minutes later, I was back on the road. It turned out that my tail light wasn’t really broken, though. And that nervous feeling stuck with me.
That first police stop changed my entire perception of safety. To this day, my anxiety billows if I see a Ford F-150 or Dodge Charger behind me. It’s the kind of vigilance, the buzzing anxiety of fight or flight, many Black people feel when they see police officers.
North Philadelphia therapist Ron Crawford plainly summarized how some Black people may feel. “The normal is every time I hear a police siren and I look in the mirror, I get anxious. That’s normal.”
Crawford has spent 20 years in the city working with individuals with histories of substance use, mental health issues, and incarceration. And, as a Black man, he is no stranger to traumatic interactions with police.
“I had an uncle who was physically abused when he was arrested,” he said. “The pain that permeated through my family as a result of what we witnessed, it kind of changed my reactions or my interactions with police because I understood that that could happen.”
Crawford is a Philadelphia native who grew up right around the corner from his office, between Huntingdon Street and Lehigh Avenue. Growing up in North Philly during the 1980s, Crawford was exposed to what he called a “cycle of violence” — drugs, policing, racism, and rioting.
Ron sees a similar “cycle of violence” happening in Philadelphia today.
“I’m a middle-aged man and living in Philadelphia recently, I’m afraid. It’s dangerous.” And he feels a similar fear about potential police interactions.
Mental health experts are looking into the long-term consequences of the anxiety surrounding potential police interactions.
According to Dr. Jackie Jahn, assistant professor at Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health, those mental health implications need to be addressed.
“When people are stopped, it has a particular impact on their mental health related to anxiety, depressive symptoms, PTSD, like hypervigilance takes shape,” she said. “But also living in a community where police are surveilling residents, where your social network, your friends, your family are being regularly stopped can also contribute to mental health issues, even if that person isn’t experiencing police stops themselves.”
Jahn believes that policing and incarceration are interconnected systems. If you’re stopped by the police and are a person of color, it increases your chance of arrest and incarceration. Generational trauma is also an important factor. That trauma is what Jahn considers a chronic stressor, which presents a greater public health crisis in Black communities.
“I think it’s really important to bring up that intergenerational lens,” she said. “When we think about people’s first experiences with police, it’s often, unfortunately, in adolescence. It’s especially Black and brown youth who are having their first encounters with police. 23% of youth report having an interaction with the police by the time they’re age 15.”
At this age, what often is learned and developed, Jahn said, are feelings of hypervigilance, the feeling of always being on guard, always looking out, and never fully relaxing. Hypervigilance can be detrimental to a person’s mental health.
Hypervigilance can also happen as a result of a person being stopped themselves, or hearing about their friends or family members being stopped by police.
“So if that stop was an example of use of force. All of those types of factors can contribute to feelings of anxiety, nervousness, fear — because it’s a fear of if that incident might happen again,” Jahn said.
Jahn also stated chronic stressors can have a significant impact on an individual’s physical health – affecting everything from heart health to sleep and weight.
“There is a pretty significant body of research that suggests that we can start to think about frequent police stops as a chronic stressor,” she said. “It’s something that could happen again and again. Or at least you’re worried it could happen again and again.”
In Jahn’s research, people often talk about how police interactions affect their lives and most people describe similar things: feeling like their movements are controlled; having to dress a certain way, and avoiding certain spaces. The implications of these chronic stressors are severe.
“Thinking about the interconnections, chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure,” she said. “I’m not saying that one interaction with police will give you a heart condition, but when we think about this at a population level, using the frame of chronic stress is really important and has contributed to the science on this issue.”
Frequent police stops can also have a ripple effect on entire families.
“There was recent research that suggested after youth were stopped by police, mothers experienced difficulty sleeping even after controlling for their levels of sleep prior to that police stop,” she said. “So we need to think about parents, mothers, but also girls. Especially Black girls who are not stopped at the same level as boys, but who still experience those harms and disproportionately experience those harms.”
Therapist Ron Crawford says he suggests to his patients to try mindfulness, breathing techniques, listening to music they enjoy — anything to get their minds to calm down. He also says he hopes that more Black men will recognize therapy as an option that could really help them.
According to the American Psychological Association, only 26% of Black and Hispanic men with anxiety and depression seek mental health services, as opposed to 45.4% of non-Hispanic White men.
And thinking about the crisis of gun violence, policing, and the stress of over-policing, Crawford also sees a need to address trauma among police officers.
“I may experience a level of anxiety when I’m engaging a police officer,” Crawford said, “ But he may have experienced more traumatic experiences than I have because of the work that he does. There is a chance he might not be getting counseling for that. So I’m worried about police officers with unresolved PTSD, who may also be human beings having family problems, substance use disorders.”
Crawford says a traumatized officer may act in an irrational way, or not be able to show empathy toward others. He adds that more cities are recognizing that police officers may need more help in learning how to cope with trauma.
Death by suicide rates amongst police officers continues to rise at an all-time high. Many have also shared their personal stories of battling through the intensity of the job.
“Being a police officer is a rewarding career, but dangerous — not only physically, but mentally as well,” said officer Anthony Espada with the Cleveland Police Department. “Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. We can all agree that every assignment we get or assignments we assist on, we take a little bit of that particular incident with you.”
Espada shared his story to the National Alliance on Mental Illness that watching friends and family die by suicide influenced him to get help.
“From being a Marine Corps Combat Veteran, to the suicides early in my career of co-workers from the Second District, to one of my academy classmates getting shot and killed in 2008, to a shooting I was involved in 2011, to my brother-in-law also on the job dying by suicide in 2012 … My glass began to overflow,” he said.
And calling to ask for help, he said, might have saved his life.
“If I had not made that phone call, I would not be here right now writing this article. I truly believe I would have been another statistic of police suicides,” he said.
Judith Andersen is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She trains police officers by simulating high-stress scenarios while monitoring their physical responses. She says that rapid responses can help officers become more focused and aware, but channeling those emotions is essential. She uses breathing exercises to help officers stay calm under pressure.
“We call this a single breath reset,” she said. “And when they do this, they can drop their heart rate, and it gives them a brief window — reappraising the situation, their brain comes online – ‘what does my brain say in this situation?’ ”
Recent studies are trying to examine ways to help police officers find mental health resources. Anderson said that it’s important to face these issues and acknowledge unaddressed, traumatic experiences of policing.
“There has been a resistance to addressing one’s own internal processes,” she said. “Like it was a weakness. We are human, these are natural stress responses, it’s your body trying to save your life, you have to modify that to make excellent decisions vs. mistakes.”