A study of nearly 1,900 fatal police encounters and millions of birth records in California suggests that murders by black people unarmed by police can affect the health of black children even before they were born.
Pregnant black women living near the scene of such deaths involving officers had their babies earlier than mothers who were not exposed to these incidents during pregnancy, the researchers found. In addition, these babies had a significantly lower birth weight – a risk factor for future health problems.
O findings, published this week in Science Advances, points to ways in which police killings of unarmed black Americans affect the wider community, even for generations.
"We often think of police violence as having these consequences on an individual level," he said. Kristin Turney, a UC Irvine sociologist who was not involved in the new research. “But this article is really groundbreaking because it shows that police violence has side effects. It can affect people even in the womb. "
Following the well-publicized police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and many others, scientists began to explore how this violence stirs beyond the original victim. For example, a 2018 Lancet study linked police killings of unarmed black men with a increased mental health problems for black people living in the same state.
Joscha Legewie, a sociologist at Harvard University, has studied the ways in which aggressive policing can lead to poor academic performance. He collaborated on a study this year in the American Sociological Review, which linked outbreaks of aggressive policing from the New York Police Department to lowest test scores for African-American students in police target areas. He also knew that many of the health disparities that black children face begin even earlier – starting at birth, if not earlier.
Children born with low birth weight – defined as anything below 2,500 grams – has a higher risk of learning disabilities, delayed motor and social development, and other health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the United States, the risk of low birth weight It is almost twice as high for black children as for white and Latino children, according to the March of Dimes.
Legewie wanted to see if living with the threat of police violence could be a contributing factor.
To investigate this issue, he examined 3.9 million California birth records from 2007 to 2016, including over 246,000 for black children. Detailed records allowed us to extract health data about babies as well as information about where their mothers lived.
He combined this data with records from the Fatal Encounters database, a journalist-led system that collects publicly available information on police violence. A total of 1,891 police killings involved were included in the analysis, all occurring in California between 2005 and 2017; 164 of these cases focused on unarmed black victims.
Legewie found that when an unarmed black person was killed one kilometer from a black woman's house during the first or second trimester of pregnancy, the birth weight of the baby was significantly lower compared to black mothers who were not exposed to them. events. The difference ranged from 50 to more than 80 grams, depending in part on the distance of pregnancy at the time of the murder. (No links were seen in the third quarter.)
There was no link between birth weights and police killings of blacks carrying guns, Legewie found. In addition, police killings of armed or unarmed whites and Latinos did not have a significant effect on the birth weight of white or Latino children, respectively.
"This finding indicates that the effect is race-specific and driven by perceptions of discrimination and structural racism rather than general threats of crime and violence," he wrote in the newspaper.
Legewie repeated the analysis in several ways to double-check the results. He compared the results between women who experienced these close episodes of police violence during pregnancy with women who suffered after the birth of their babies. Only exposure during pregnancy was linked to low birth weight, he found.
To control the differences between mothers, he also focused on black women who experienced these events during one pregnancy, but not others. Once again, babies born after a police murder near an unarmed black person had lower birth weights, but their siblings did not.
In his analysis, he also made sure to control other confounders, such as the overall level of poverty and other violence in the area.
No matter how he analyzed it, the results still held.
"This is an important and very intuitive discovery," he said. Amanda Geller, a sociologist at New York University who was not involved in the work. "The fact that it is so clearly and clearly, methodologically and rigorously documented is really important."
There is evidence that young people, especially young blacks, are more vulnerable to violent police encounters. For example, a study published in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that black boys and men were 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.
But the new findings suggest that the effects of police violence may influence black children before they have a chance to find law enforcement.
Although Legewie has not studied the physiological mechanisms that may be at play, he said it is likely that the stress experienced by pregnant women as a result of these violent events is affecting their child's birth weight.
A mother's proximity to a police murder, she said, "could potentially fix what it means to raise a black child in America."
Finally, the findings point to the need to treat police violence as a public health problem – which should be addressed by doctors and institutions that treat or help future black mothers, he said. Florence Torche, sociologist at Stanford University.
"Providing easy access to support and assistance in trying to offset the potential negative effects of such exposure is a good social policy," said Torche, who did not participate in the study. "It supports the health and well-being of not only the current generation of exposed adults but the next generation as well."
The next step, the researchers said, would be to explore further exactly what mechanisms of physiological stress were working in the bodies of pregnant women – and perhaps see how these effects manifest themselves in birth registration data from other states.