Watching Videos Of Police Brutality Can Traumatize You, Especially If You’re Black

“You never know if you’re going to be that next case.”
A cousin and a co-worker of Philando Castile try to console each other during a July 7 protest in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A cousin and a co-worker of Philando Castile try to console each other during a July 7 protest in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Eric Miller/Reuters

Jarrod Doyle was relaxing with friends on July 5 when the hashtag #AltonSterling popped up on his Instagram feed. He tabbed over to Google to search the name. On Facebook, he found a graphic video of two police officers pinning Sterling to the ground before fatally shooting him in the chest and back six times.

After watching that video, the 23-year-old Atlanta resident realized his teeth and hands had been clenched the entire time.

“I was instantly angry. I just kind of get that — it’s like a rage. The rage you really can’t do anything about because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. You’re just angry. You’re mad at everyone and everything,” Doyle told The Huffington Post.

As the hours passed, that anger turned into a feeling of helplessness and fear for his own life.

On July 7, Doyle was scrolling through Facebook when an autoplaying video of Philando Castile’s dying moments appeared in his feed. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond “Lavish” Williams, began recording the video on Facebook Live shortly after a police officer shot Castile during a traffic stop.

The cycle of rage, tension and fear started all over again.

“You never know when the next incident is going to be,” said Doyle, who is a black man himself. “You never know if you’re going to be that next case.”

At least 509 people have been shot and killed by police in the U.S. this year, according to a Washington Post database. More and more of those incidents are being captured on mobile phone videos, shot mostly by bystanders and then broadcast widely on social media and cable news.

That means, more and more of us are trying to decide whether to click “play” ― and trying to deal with our sorrow and despair afterward.

Research on the psychological effects of watching footage of police brutality is in the early stages. But medical health experts suggest there can be long-term implications ― especially for those, like Doyle, who are the same race as the people being beaten and shot.

That Could Be Me Or Mine

It’s normal to feel sadness, anger and despair after watching a violent video. Research suggests that repeated viewing of terrorism news coverage can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in people who are already prone to react physically to stress or have prior exposure to violence. Scholarship also shows that racism can have a traumatizing effect on its victims.

So it’s not too big a stop to think that all these police brutality videos may be especially damaging to the mental health of African-Americans.

“When you’re part of a stigmatized community, so much of your identity is tied up in that community,” explained Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville. “And when you see other people like you who are being victimized, it makes you feel that the world’s not a safe place for people like you.”

“You feel bad that you can’t do anything.”

- Jarrod Doyle

The perception that the perpetrators of violence face no consequences for their actions can transform that trauma into terror, said Phillip Atiba Goff, a social psychology expert and president of the Center for Policing Equity.

“If you’re conditioned to a trauma, and that trauma occurs and recurs in a context where it feels you have no control over it, and it’s being done by powerful people for whom there are no consequences ― that’s why I’m saying we move from trauma to terror,” Goff said.

We don’t know yet whether the police officers who shot Sterling and Castile this week will face criminal charges. But the lack of jail time for the killers of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, for instance ― two black men who died at the hands of New York police in 2014 ― feed into the belief that police are rarely punished for their violent actions against civilians.

Not to mention the fearful certainty that it will happen again.

“What can you do? What do you do?” Doyle said. “You feel bad that you can’t do anything.”

Checking Out

That feeling of helplessness and hopelessness can undercut efforts to end police brutality against black people said Susan Moeller, director of the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media and the Public Agenda. Because the videos are so horrifying, she said, some people try to shut them out and turn away ― which makes those individuals less likely to pursue political action aimed at reform.

“The first time that you see something happening, this horrible crisis, you’re overwhelmed by it and you try to help. You think, ‘Where do I go to protest?’” Moeller said. “But then if the same type of event keeps occurring, you throw up your hands ― your going out on the street doesn’t seem to make a difference.”

For some people, it can feel like they have to choose between re-experiencing trauma and becoming numb to the footage, Goff said.

“There aren’t great tools when you have to be exposed to these sorts of things over and over again,” he said.

In a 2015 New Republic article, Roxane Silver, a professor of psychology and sociology who pioneered research on the effects of watching 9/11 anniversary footage, advised people to stop watching the videos for their mental health. But Williams and Goff, who are both African-American, argue that turning away from the videos would be, in effect, a withdrawal from society.

“It’s important we as a public know about it, because it’s only through the dissemination of this information that anything is going to happen,” Williams said.

“There’s no hard and fast set of techniques that we know of that will avoid [trauma], other than avoiding it altogether,” Goff said. “Too many and the brain can’t handle it. But at the same time if you don’t watch, you can’t participate in the society.”

The Upside To Brutal Videos

Indeed, the benefits of having videos that capture police brutality may outweigh the harms that comes from viewing them.

Video has, and continues to serve, as an important check on police behavior given the lack of laws, policies, and practices that hold police accountable,” said DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist and an outspoken advocate for the adoption of police body cameras.

Though the Black Lives Matter movement began as a response to the murder of Trayvon Martin ― an incident that was not recorded on video ― the existence of police violence videos has forced many people, especially white Americans, to confront the reality that black people face. In a statement released Friday, Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and a possible vice presidential pick for Donald Trump, acknowledged that. “If you’re a normal Caucasian,” he said, “you don’t see that, because it’s not part of your experience.”

“Video has, and continues to serve, as an important check on police behavior.”

- DeRay Mckesson

For people who have had negative encounters with law enforcement that were not caught on camera, these videos can serve as a touchstone ― an affirmation that they weren’t exaggerating or making things up.

“I’ve talked to people who have had really traumatic experiences with law enforcement, but because of the way it got handled, they ended up feeling as if their experiences were diminished or erased,” Goff said. “And so they see a video and they’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that happened to me.’”

Should We Watch Or Not?

There’s no easy advice on when and how much we should keep viewing videos depicting police violence.

People should feel no obligation to watch, Mckesson said, “as each person responds to these images of trauma differently.”

In an op-ed first published in 2015 after the shooting on the Umpqua Community College campus, Daniel Dodgen advised parents to limit their children’s access to the coverage of traumatic events. Very young children might think that the constant news reports mean the event is happening over and over again, wrote Dodgen, a clinical psychologist who specializes in child psychology and the behavioral health impacts of disasters. If children do watch news about a violent situation, watch it with them and discuss any questions they have ― all the while emphasizing that they’re safe and loved, and that leaders are working to fix the situation.

Adults should also try to limit their own consumption of violent videos. Don’t watch traumatizing footage right before bed, as it could disturb your sleep or your dreams, Dodgen advised. If the news brings to mind your own traumatic experiences, reach out to a family member, friend or mental health professional to discuss your feelings.

“The platform we use to nurture our relationships can also be the medium by which we’re traumatized.”

- Susan Moeller

Avoiding all such footage can be difficult, however, especially for the millions who use social media daily. Autoplaying videos autoplay. And hashtags and photos can lead people down a rabbit hole of internet searches toward grisly sights.

“The platform we use to nurture our relationships can also be the medium by which we’re traumatized,” Moeller observed.

So if you are going to watch a video, Goff has one final piece of advice: Focus on your body’s response to the footage as a way to know when it’s time to close the screen.

“If you see that your blood pressure is going up and your heart is racing, that’s a good time to stop watching,” he said.

If you find yourself crying excessively, withdrawing from social activities or feeling overwhelmed by sadness and confusion to the point that it interferes with your everyday life, seek help from a trained mental health professional.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had the wrong first name for Susan Moeller, director of the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media and the Public Agenda.

Before You Go

Peaceful Protests Over Alton Sterling and Philando Castile Shootings

Popular in the Community


What's Hot