Black Girls Matter
Emily Esquivel, MA LPC
State sanctioned violence against the Black community isn’t anything new, it’s been going on since the inception of America. America would not be America without the dehumanization and exploitation of Black bodies. In the Summer of 2020 amidst a global pandemic, we witnessed a national outcry yet again, after the onslaught of state sanctioned murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black lives. The Black community is desperately asking that we, non-Black POC and white Americans simply see them as human. Seems like such a simple ask. Yet anti-Black racism and white supremacy is so deeply entrenched in our nation, that we get overwhelmed by the idea of having to confront all of the systems that keep Black people down. When it gets too hard, we give up.
As I write this just days into Black History month, news media sites are being dominated by a story out of Rochester, New York of a 9 year old Black girl exhibiting signs of emotional distress. According to Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson, the 9 year old Black girl was expressing that she wanted to kill herself and her mother. On the body cam footage that was released you can hear an officer telling the girl “you’re acting like a child!” to which she responds “I am a child”. Moments after this she is handcuffed, forced into the back of a police car and then pepper sprayed. (Hong, 2021)
Nine years old.
She is just a child.
A Black child.
Still mentally and physically developing.
If we take for a moment the gravity and seriousness of what it means when anyone, child, adolescent, adult, whomever, says that they want to kill themselves why would the response ever be to arrest them? As therapists we are trained to meet someone in distress where they are, to de-escalate the situation, to care for someone in so much pain that the only thing they can think of to escape their pain is killing themselves in that moment. As therapists we know that when a child is in such severe distress and in fight or flight mode, what has to be done is that we have to meet them in that place. They need reassurance. What a child in this state of mind needs is care and nurture. Police officers are not equipped with the tools to deal with people in distress or who are struggling with mental illness, especially Black girls and women in particular.
Time and time again, police officers are called to the scene when what’s needed in these moments are people who have been trained to do this work. Attempts have been made to help reduce police violence in Black communities, however the attempts have been largely unsuccessful. Researchers at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania found that, “Over the past five years there has been no reduction in the racial disparity in fatal police shooting victims despite increased use of body cameras and closer media scrutiny” (Belli, 2020). Additionally, studies have been conducted to show police officer’s implicit bias and automatic responses to be more violent towards or automatically associate violence with Black individuals. A study conducted with the NYPD in 2018 found that implicit bias training with police officers had little to no effect on how they conducted themselves in the field. Although NYPD completed implicit bias training, the research after the training showed that more than half of the people stopped were Black while only 24% of New York City’s population is Black (Kaste, 2020).
Due to the intersectional identities of gender, race and mental health Black girls and women face compounded issues when dealing with police officers. Given that police are already more likely to be violent towards Black individuals then add mental health issues, the combination is lethal. Take for example a case out of Elgin, Illinois where 34 year old DeCynthia Clements with diagnosed schizophrenia and bipolar disorder was shot and killed by police officers who couldn’t recognize she was in crisis when they came on the scene. Steps could have been taken to de-escalate the situation instead of murdering this Black woman in distress. An astounding 31% of women fatally shot by the police since 2015 had mental health issues compared to 22% of men (Jenkins, 2020). Then when we look at statistics for Black women — who make up 13% of the population — we see that they account for 20% of the women shot and killed (Jenkins, 2020).
In 2019 there were 170,000 mental health calls made to 911 (Chhabra, 2020). As previously stated, what’s needed in these scenarios isn’t someone to respond to the scene with force but rather people who are trained to do this work. In some states, work is already being done to create a new system in which trauma response therapists and paramedics come to the scene of a mental health crisis instead of the police (Cohene, 2021). This is certainly a first step in creating change and responding to mental health calls in a compassionate, caring way (we’ll have to address racism and white supremacy in mental health another day).
There must be systemic change to address the dehumanization and criminalization of being Black in America. The research has shown that training police officers isn’t going to fix this public health crisis. People can’t be trained to value and respect the inherent dignity of Black life and the justice system will not hold officers accountable despite body cameras showing their wrong doings. A system grossly obsessed with maintaining its power through the dehumanization of Black bodies has very little interest in changing. It’s no longer about changing the system, it’s about creating a new one.
Hong, N. (2021, January 31). Rochester Officers Suspended After Pepper-Spraying of 9-Year-Old Girl. NYTimes. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/31/nyregion/rochester-police-pepper-spray-child.html
Belli, B. (2020, October 27). Racial disparity in police shootings unchanged over 5 years. Yale News. https://news.yale.edu/2020/10/27/racial-disparity-police-shootings-unchanged-over-5-years
Kaste, Martin. (2020, September 10). NYPD Study: Implicit Bias Training Changes Minds, Not Necessarily Behavior. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/10/909380525/nypd-study-implicit-bias-training-changes-minds-not-necessarily-behavior
Brugal, S. et al. (2020, September 4). Nearly 250 women have been fatally shot by the police since 2015. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/investigations/police-shootings-women/
Cohen, L. (2021, February 6). Healthcare workers replaced Denver cops in handling hundreds of Mental health and substance abuse cases- and officials say it saved lives. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/denver-health-professionals-replaced-cops-in-handling-hundreds-of-low-level-incidents-for-6-months-and-successfully-did-so-with-no-arrests/
Chhabra, D. (2020, November 15). How sending mental health responders instead of police could save Black lives. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/US/sending-mental-health-responders-police-save-black-lives/story?id=74210488