Policing the Mind: Police Brutality and Mental Health

Policing the Mind: Police Brutality and Mental Health

by Aja Witt 


There’s a video of Philando Castile being murdered in front of his fiancée, and her four year old daughter floating around the internet.

CNN, Fox News, and NBC News have all displayed the execution in their newscasts; MSNBC includes a soundbite from Castile’s mother following the 2017 “Not Guilty” verdict.  If you remember, Castile was shot seven times in St. Anthony, Minnesota in July of 2016 by police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop. He slumps over in his driver’s seat, his left arm and side are bloodied. Officer Yanez reports having shot Castile after Castile revealed to him that he had a firearm. According to Castile’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the incident to Facebook, Castile was shot while reaching for his ID.

I’ve yet to see the video. I have no desire to see the video. For far too many people, Philando Castile’s case, like many others, is shamefully being used as entertainment, not a stimulus for activism–a topic of the month until there’s something else to “debate” about on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr. My issue with this “debate” is that it’s not a true discussion of opposing sides. It assumes there are competing positions on the topic of police brutality where there shouldn’t be. Officer Yanez should not have shot and killed Philando Castile in July of 2016, but because he did, he should be in prison. End of discussion.

Castile was shot while reaching for his ID.

With cases like Castile’s, we are reminded of the egregious fact that every time a person of color is murdered by the police, their life will be trivialized as a part of their dehumanization. That any conversation of police brutality their case has reawakened, will soon quiet to a whisper, if it hasn’t already. That most things will go back to the way they were, at least until the next incident occurs. This is the repetitively violent cycle with which I disagree. If the general public is half-heartedly prompted to advocate for change solely when blood has been spilled, very little will ever get done. It is in those few quiet moments where action and resistance must be at its strongest. And this is not to say that there aren’t people fighting against police brutality everyday, as there certainly are, but far more of us need to be aroused before lives like Castile’s, Charleena Lyles’ and Tommy Le’s are taken — before their deaths are grossly exploited by the media.

But national newscasts will continue to pass around Castile and his family’s suffering with very little regard as to how traumatizing photos and video of a slain man can be. This is extremely problematic. They will not discuss the institutional racism that allows for the disproportionate killing of Black people by militarized police, but they will display the killing on repeat for several days. They will not discuss the impact these killings have, and have had, on the Black community, or the psyche of a person who feels like a target. How decades of racism and discrimination by a group which claims to have been implemented “To Protect and to Serve” makes the heart beat out of a Black person’s chest with every interaction. It is these interactions that make trauma and fear a mainstay in the Black community, but news anchors will hardly bat an eye as deadly, mentally abusive videos play out on the screens behind them.

Sooner than expected, the protests against police brutality by players of the WNBA, NFL, and NBA will begin losing their steam, as the #TakeAKnee Movement itself is co-opted and whitewashed to fit whatever narrative the media is trying to tell.

The entire Indiana Fever roster kneels for the national anthem against police brutality, and in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, in September of 2016. Photo by Mykal McEldowney for IndyStar.

This is not to denounce hashtag activism, as it too can be a vital agent for change. We’ve seen how movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #YouOKSis, and #MeToo have stirred conversations, both domestically and internationally, as it pertains to racial profiling and police brutality and to sexual abuse, assault, or sexual harassment. There have been marches formed and donations made through digital connections alone, but the limitations lie in disconnection, self-efficacy — or one’s belief in leading your own movement in your own hometown — and the media’s enduring effort to quell dissension by silencing marginal voices. When we put down our phones, or change the channel, it is easy to become complacent. It is easy, when you have not been directly affected, to spread images of domestic terrorism, liking and RTing a person’s life into obscurity.

“This city killed my son, and the murderer gets away… you could be next.”

As it stands, very little conversation, if any at all, will be devoted to police brutality — and the media’s showcasing of police brutality — as a mental health issue. No one will report on what happens to Diamond Reynolds, or the four year old girl who sat in the backseat as a man she knew and loved was murdered in the front seat. No one will breathe life into the words of Castile’s mother, Valerie, who said, “This city killed my son, and the murderer gets away… you could be next.” She was immediately, and perhaps inadvertently, labeled an angry Black woman for saying “F— the police” during a Facebook live “rant” by Urban News Online and Bossip. Her words have been used for meaningless, clickbait, “reply in the comments” polls by Hollywood Unlocked who asks, “Socialites, do you agree with Valerie? Hit share and let us know your thoughts.”

Valerie Castile holds a lantern during a memorial for her son Philando. Photo by Judy Griesedieck for MPR News.

It’s as if the media expected Valerie Castile to deliver a PG comment, using any other emotion besides anger, following the murder of her son by police. As if her words cannot stand on their own, and in fact, warrant analysis, to see if anyone else “agrees.” This handling of Castile in, likely her weakest, moment, serves only to reveal the media’s desensitized normalization of domestic terrorism towards the Black body. It showcases how, in life and in death, our distress will be dissected for national entertainment.

There is no acknowledgment of how passing around the video of a Black man being murdered — while exposing police brutality — is also contributing to the erosion of our mental health and well-being, and, perhaps sub-consciously and purposefully, reinforcing a fear and hatred of police for people of color.

We want to talk about race, but we don’t really want to talk about race.

When Patrick Harmon was murdered by Utah police in early October of 2017, he received a similar treatment to that of Castile. A video of the incident kept resurfacing on my Twitter timeline, so much so, that I had to tweet, “Can y’all please stop RTing the video of police killing #PatrickHarmon It’s sadistic.”


I quickly received a reply stating how important it was to show what police had done to Harmon; to #SayHisName. And while that may be true, it’s also mentally abusive. It normalizes the consumption of Black suffering as CNN displays the video and does little else to combat police brutality. There’s no discussion of racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system or of racial profiling by police. We want to talk about race, but we don’t really want to talk about race.

Replies like the one I received subvert conversations about mental health and police brutality, suggesting irrationality for anyone who speaks in opposition to witnessing a murder. There’s an element of “weakness” attached to people who don’t quite have the stomach for these types of things. People like myself, who feel physically exhausted and mentally incongruous when I think about the pain Castile and Harmon must’ve endured and of which their families will have to live with everyday. People who are told we are “overreacting” because our bodies still allow us to cry at these things. I have not yet been desensitized to accept that murder is a natural part of life and that sharing these murders is not cruel. So when racism, discrimination, and societal inequalities “continue to have an impact on the mental health of Black/African Americans,” (Mental Health America, 2017) I will continue to suppress videos showcasing our demise.


Aja Witt is an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa working toward a B.A. in Journalism and African American History. She enjoys watching professional wrestling and combating misogynoir. Her greatest inspiration is her mother Darlene and Shirley Chisholm who famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”