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Study connects police tactics and mental health concerns

A new journal article highlights a connection between intrusive police practices related to New York's "stop and frisk" policies and mental health risks.

A new study in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that there may be a connection between intrusive police practices and mental health.

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The study, titled "Aggressive Policing and the Mental Health of Young Urban Men," found that the people who dealt with the police more also reported dealing with symptoms of trauma and anxiety, and that those symptoms were greater when their interactions with police were more intrusive.

Amanda Geller, the lead author of the paper, told msnbc in an interview that the study’s findings can’t say that the stops caused anxiety or trauma symptoms, and that they could be related to other factors, like poverty.

But, she said, the fact that the young men who reported more intrusive encounters with police also reported more anxiety and trauma raises serious questions about how police tactics affect communities beyond questions of civil liberties and justice.

“I think public health outcomes are absolutely something we should be looking at,” Geller said.

Geller told msnbc in an email that her paper is one part of a larger project, and the survey also included questions about how much the young men trust the police and their willingness to cooperate in an investigation. “In future work we can look at relationships between reported health, attitudes and personal experiences with the police,” she said. “All of these are part of the conversation about police-community relationships.”

The study was conducted over a six month period from September 2012 to March 2013, and researches interviewed more than 1,200 men between the ages of 18 and 26 in New York City. The young men in the study answered questions about how many times they had been stopped, what happened and about trauma and anxiety.

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Over-policing, police violence and mass incarceration have all been recent topics of debate nationwide, with the U.S. Justice Department launching major sentencing reforms for drug offenders and ordering civil rights investigations into the deaths of Trayvon Martin and John Crawford, and into the Ferguson, Missouri police department. And the New York City Department of Corrections faced scathing criticism from the DOJ for the “culture of violence” that existed at juvenile facilities at Rikers Island prison.

While there is more information about how incarceration can hurt mental health, there is little data on how less serious interactions with law enforcement might affect it.

According to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union, there were more than 724,000 stop-and-frisk incidents in 2012 and 2013, and nearly 90% of all those stopped were completely innocent. In New York, police were allowed to stop, question and search individuals if they had “reasonable suspicion” that the people stopped had committed, were in the middle of committing or were about to commit a crime. In practice, it led to nearly 5 million stops between 2002 and 2014, and the vast majority of stop and frisk targets were of black and Latino men.

The policy of “stop and frisk” was a major issue in the 2013 New York mayoral race, but many cities in the United States have looked to New York as a model for law enforcement practices. Studying public health effects of police interactions could also lead the way for other departments to change approaches.

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After a court battle with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a judge ruled the NYPD’s stop and frisk practices were unconstitutional and ordered the department to change its policies. Since Bill De Blasio took office in January 2014, stops have plummeted, but they have been replaced by “broken windows” policing, which has meant that officers are now targeting many of the same communities for low-level crimes.

“Very few stop-and-frisk encounters result in arrest, but one broad implication of this study is that even encounters that don't lead to more formal processing may have health implications. This is also something to be aware of when looking at low-level arrests and other tactics the police may use,” Geller said. “Population health concerns need to be considered as a component of any police interactions with the public.”