People with signs in a park.

People attend a vigil at City Hall Park for Jordan Neely, who was fatally choked on a subway by a fellow passenger ten days ago, on May 11, 2023 in New York City.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

We Need More Accountability, Not More Black Trauma Porn

Instead of sharing video after someone is killed by police, it’s time to prioritize preventative measures.

When Black street performer Jordan Neely was murdered on a New York subway, four minutes of video by a freelance journalist captured the event, prompting last week’s protests and a nationwide outcry. This is part of an ongoing flood of video documenting violence against Black bodies.

This month alone, body cam video showed Alabama police sending a police dog after an unarmed Black man and Minnesota officers mistakenly attacking a 65-year-old Black man using a walker (after the video had been suppressed for three years). Also, San Francisco supervisors unanimously passed a resolution demanding the release of video footage of the killing of Banko Brown, a 24-year-old Black transgender man killed in late April.

Thanks to technology, cameras are now ubiquitous tools that save lives and hold the perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence accountable, but I see a sinister effect in motion as well. It’s no coincidence that when the video of Tyre Nichols’ murder was released in January, my Facebook timeline included trigger warnings. These images stay with us, and have an insidious impact. Who can forget the haunting footage of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd on the sidewalk in plain sight in May 2020?

When these murders do occur, society should be more mindful about sharing the resulting footage and shaping the public narrative.

The frequency of publicized police violence on social media, television, and in print is desensitizing us to violent acts against Black bodies, fueling an obsession with Black trauma porn. The infatuation with Black trauma porn has real consequences for real people. It can lead to further deaths by police as their workforce becomes more desensitized to unpenalized and incentivized violence.

Instead of sharing video after someone is killed by police, it’s time to prioritize preventative measures.

First, alternatives to calling 911 should be made more widely available. Mental health crises or Black BBQ-ers are not situations that require police to respond. When they do, this can lead to unnecessarily hostile contact with police and unintended deaths.

Additionally, the police force should come from or look like the communities they represent. To be sure, racial and ethnic commonalities did not protect Mr. Nichols at all. However, the foundation of Memphis law enforcement is rooted in anti-Blackness that affects Black officers too.

Statistically, White men are less than one-third of the U.S. population but represent two-thirds of the police force. Yet, countless studies show that diverse workforces are safer. For instance, economist Bocar Ba and colleagues found that Black officers made 15.16 fewer stops and 1.93 fewer arrests than their White counterparts over 100 shifts. This behavior resulted in a 32% reduction in use of force among Black officers compared to White officers. Less force leads to fewer deaths.

There should also be a SWOT analysis (a type of program assessment that identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) for existing implicit bias training for police officers, as little research exists proving its efficacy. A study of the NYPD by criminal justice professor Robert Worden and colleagues shows that while implicit bias training does impact attitude, it doesn’t always change behavior. Implicit bias training for their department showed no significant reduction in the frisks in stops, summonses, and arrests involving Black and Hispanic people after police were trained.

Lastly, there needs to be frequent and equitable internal and external review of any police misconduct allegations. Police officers are supposed to serve and protect the public and should be held to the highest scrutiny when they unnecessarily kill citizens instead.

When these murders do occur, society should be more mindful about sharing the resulting footage and shaping the public narrative. The Black community suffers from the harmful tropes resulting from narratives that are not our own. The public witnesses these narratives and internalizes harmful tropes that lead to us being even more discriminated against and stereotyped.

Headlines depicting White mass murders read more like their dating app profiles than a description of their gruesome crimes. Meanwhile, Black perpetrators of petty crimes are shown by their mugshot. This has to stop.

Sending thoughts and prayers to mourning families on the receiving end of society’s obsession with Black trauma porn is not enough—and it’s not fair. Implementing policies and practices that create an anti-discriminatory system with accessible 911 alternatives is the most effective and genuine response.

The death rate of marginalized peoples at the hands of police is a public health crisis. In the last 12 months, police have killed over 1,100 people, with a disproportionate number of deaths being Black or Brown people.

Police departments, judicial systems, and infrastructure are all needed to fight this ugly reality and uphold the responsibility to build a diverse, well-trained police force that doesn’t contribute so heavily to Black trauma porn and holds its members accountable.

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