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When Watching Footage of Police Brutality Begets Trauma

Racial trauma and vicarious trauma people of color experience.

Key points

  • Watching the videos of Nichols, Floyd, and King, played continuously on the news and social media, causes distress, anguish, fear, and grief.
  • Vicarious trauma occurs due to empathetic engagement with those who experience incidents and mayhem.
  • Racial trauma occurs when individuals have repeated exposure to dangerous, life-threatening, or distressing race-based events.
  • The systems, policies, practices, culture, and people responsible for harm should be the central focus of attention.

The release of video footage from the violent death of Tyre Nichols has enraged the nation. The footage shows Nichols being pepper-sprayed, repeatedly tased, and savagely beaten by five Memphis police officers with punches, kicks, and batons to his head and body. Nichols is seen desperately screaming “mom” and wailing in pain.

Three days after the beating, Nichols died from the injuries he sustained. The autopsy revealed his death was due to extensive bleeding resulting from severe beatings and excessive use of force. Nichols, a father of a four-year-old son, died at the hands of those who swore an oath to protect others, an all too frequent occurrence in our nation. For many in the Black community, Nichol’s death is even more unbearable to fathom, given that the police officers involved are also Black.

As I watched the video, numerous thoughts ran through my mind. Almost immediately, I was reminded of the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991 by Los Angeles police officers. Although King survived this violent encounter, the images of him being beaten viciously appeared fresh in my mind, almost as if the encounter had occurred this year, not three decades ago.

I also recalled immediately my own negative experiences with law enforcement. For many, the video of Nichols also brings the slaying of George Floyd into immediate recall. In May 2020, Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. In that case, police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes, which constricted his intake of oxygen. Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” Like Nichols, he called out for his mother in desperation.

For many, watching the videos of Nichols, Floyd, King, and countless others played continuously on the news, and social media causes distress, anguish, fear, and grief. These feelings may be even more intense for those who have experienced police brutality themselves or who have lost loved ones to violent encounters with law enforcement. The accumulation of emotional distress from repeated incidents like these is traumatic. The emotional response one experiences due to these distressing events can be referred to as trauma.

There are many different types of trauma. Most pertinent for those in the Black community when incidents of police brutality occur is vicarious (or secondary) trauma and racial trauma.

Vicarious trauma “arises from exposure to other people’s suffering.” In such cases, empathetic engagement with those who experience incidents and mayhem can lead to trauma. Although many scholars have discussed vicarious trauma as psychological pressure faced by those in professions repeatedly exposed to incidents of distress (e.g., nurses, doctors, EMTs, firefighters), vicarious trauma is not limited to these groups.

For those in the Black community, repetitive exposure to experiences, stories, and videos of police brutality can be traumatic as well, especially because the shared racial, and community identity is one where empathetic engagement is even more likely. For Blacks, Nichols, Floyd, and King may look, sound, and remind them of loved ones. These men could be their brothers, uncles, cousins, fathers, or other kin. Even if they have not experienced police brutality themselves, the familiarity of the victims with individuals that Blacks know and love causes anguish.

Different from vicarious trauma is racial trauma. Racial trauma occurs when individuals have repeated exposure to dangerous, life-threatening, or distressing race-based events over time, including racism and discrimination. This can occur in “response to persistent bullying, neglect, abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), and domestic violence.”

Certainly, adverse encounters with law enforcement over one’s lifespan can cause an intense emotional response. The cumulative effects of racial and vicarious trauma can explain the significant rates of PTSD among the Black community. As a Black man myself, chronic trauma is an unfortunate part of life. In debriefing with numerous Black male friends in the aftermath of Nichol’s video release, our conversations transitioned immediately to our own negative experiences with police officers.

In all my conversations, every friend had multiple negative encounters (e.g., held at gunpoint, handcuffed, beaten, bullied) with law enforcement where they thought their personal safety and lives were at risk. When video footage of police brutality is released, survivors of such events can experience trauma triggers.

Trauma triggers involve an involuntary reminder of prior distresses. A smell, a taste, an image, or a location can remind a person of past distresses. For many Black men, the video footage of Nichols can prompt immediate recall of past traumatic incidents with law enforcement.

Differential exposure to race-related stress can have short- and long-term impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), called racial battle fatigue. Racial battle fatigue is a term coined by William Smith, a professor at the University of Utah. Smith has found that race-related stress can have numerous impacts on the mental state, physical health, and thinking of BIPOC. This occurs regardless of whether the experiences with race-related stress are mundane, everyday encounters with racism, or when they are racially traumatic events such as police bullying and brutality.

Racial battle fatigue is found to impact BIPOC by affecting their ability to process and retain information as well as focus and control their attention. Beyond these cognitive impacts, race-related stress can lead to psychological outcomes, such as an elevated sense of fear, increased anxiety, anger and resentment, emotional volatility, detachment, and numbness.

Racially traumatic events can also impact BIPOC physiologically, leading to an inability to sleep, an upset stomach, headaches, elevated blood pressure, and clenching one’s jaws. Although these outcomes may be temporarily heightened in the aftermath of viewing footage of police brutality, they can fester and continue to permeate over time through continued exposure to daily, race-related stress.

One challenge with conversations on trauma is that they often can lead to pathologizing BIPOC. When this occurs, people may use words like “trauma” and “triggers'' to paint the actions, movements, words, and general behavior of BIPOC as abnormal. In response to these events, indeed, BIPOC may not act and feel normal, but victim blaming is not the answer.

Those who have survived racially traumatic events are not to be impugned for racism or their own oppression. That is nonsensible. Rather, the systems, policies, practices, culture, and people responsible for their harm should be the central focus of attention. This is the origin and locus of this harm. Thus, this should be the obvious foundation for public discourse.

For those not in the Black community, incidents like these are a reminder to check in on friends, family, colleagues, and others within your circle; ask them how they are doing; actively demonstrate your support of them. When the next Nichols, Floyd, and Kings incident occurs, consider the rush of emotions that will likely return to those who are victimized by racially traumatic events.

I am pleased with the recent move to highlight positive images and videos of Tyre on social media. A number of posts have emphasized the positivity that he brought into the world. More efforts are needed to celebrate a life that has been lived.


Special thank you to Dr. Feion Villodas for recommendations on an earlier draft of this post.

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