Opinion: The health impacts of police brutality videos

March 21, 2023 – Video footage of police brutality against Black people may help to hold officers accountable, but it could also be hurting the health of those who bear witness to the violence, according to Michelle Williams, Dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In an opinion article published March 16 in the journal BMJ, Williams wrote that videos of police assaults reveal the truth in situations where officers are the instigators. “Video recordings of police brutality are raw and irrefutable proof of systemic oppression for those who would rather look away,” she wrote.

However, she noted that research by David Williams, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health at Harvard Chan School, has found that after incidents of unarmed Black individuals being killed by police, Black people in states where the violence happened experienced worse mental health.

Watching video footage of police assaults could have the same impact, Williams said. “The trauma of watching police officers savagely beat a Black person is hard to overcome, especially for children and young people,” she wrote.

Videos may not only impact mental health, but also physical health. Research has found that the stress of being subjected to racism is linked with accelerated aging and conditions including heart disease and chronic inflammation.

Williams said that work needs to be done to uproot the structural racism in society’s institutions. “Every day that we delay in confronting these evils, the harms continue to mount—for the victims of police violence, and for all those who are forced to watch,” she said.

Read the opinion article in BMJ: The cost of bearing witness: watching and sharing videos of police brutality online