Recent Studies Show Health-Related Effects of Police Killings, Gun Violence on Black Communities

Recent Studies Show Health-Related Effects of Police Killings, Gun Violence on Black Communities

Authors: Jessica McCann, Tonantzin Juarez


Community violence is strongly associated with adverse health outcomes, and is one of five policy domains we focus on at the Weitzman Institute. Several recent studies highlight racial/ethnic differences in the ways community violence, as well as its aftereffects, are experienced in the U.S. Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by suicide and homicide, the latter particularly affecting Black women. Additionally, exposure to violence is more likely to lead to lack of sleep in Black Americans than in white Americans. Here we discuss highlights of three of these recent studies, explore relevant issues, and examine policy solutions for future improvements.

Black Women Six Times More Likely to Die by Homicide than White Women

First, in a study published last month in The Lancet, Waller et al. found that in the U.S. between 1999 and 2020, Black women died by homicide at six times the rate of their white counterparts. While this varied by year and state, the starkest racial divide was between 1999 and 2020 in Wisconsin, where Black women were 20 times more likely to be murdered than white women. States with the largest racial gaps were also the states with the poorest racial equity rankings, a composite score including poverty, employment, and housing. The article also states that the homicide rate among Black women increased by over 73% between 2014 and 2020, undoing the decreases in rates between 1999 and 2013.

Gun Violence Exposure Associated with Increased Suicidality in Black Americans

In a second recent study, Semenza et al. explored the association between gun violence exposure and suicidal ideation and behaviors among Black Americans. While the research does not directly compare Black and white exposures or suicidality, authors state that the suicide rate among Black Americans is higher than that of white Americans, and that Black Americans experience hospital admissions due to firearm injury nine times more than their white counterparts. Authors found that for Black Americans, being threatened with a firearm or knowing a shooting victim was significantly associated with lifetime suicidal ideation, while being shot was significantly associated with planning a suicide. Authors also found the effects are cumulative, and risk of suicidality increases with exposure to different types of gun violence.

Police Killings Associated with Insufficient Sleep in More Black than White Americans

Finally, Ventataramani et al. recently published an article on how police killings of unarmed Black people affect Black and white Americans differently, with Black Americans reporting significantly less sleep after a killing, especially if the killing recently occurred in their state. This research gives evidence that structural racism, here in the form of police killings, is a strong contributor to high levels of insufficient sleep reported by Black Americans. Because insufficient sleep is associated with poor health outcomes, more research and targeted interventions are needed.

Policy Considerations

There are several commonalities in these recent works, including the prevalence of firearms in the U.S., racism and related factors such as police violence, residential and economic segregation, and other “long-standing structural factors.” We present specific policy solutions that can reduce community violence, specifically impacting communities of color.

Fund and implement homicide and violence prevention initiatives using creative partnerships. Jackson, Mississippi’s Annie E. Casey Foundation/People’s Advocacy Institute-funded Strong Arms of JXN program is one such initiative. Counselors work with local juvenile courts to deploy “credible messengers” with lived experience who serve as youth mentors, work to keep youth in school, and help reduce or avoid negative police-youth interactions. The program also offers youth transportation, employment programs, community center access, and job training – and shows promising results.

As part of this year’s Community Violence Awareness Week, the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention highlighted several successful Community Violence Intervention strategies implemented in Philadelphia. Organizations leading these initiatives include the New Options, More Opportunities (NOMO) Foundation, PowerCorpsPHL (an affiliate of AmeriCorps), and the Temple University Hospital Victims Advocate program. The Temple University Victims Advocate program is particularly groundbreaking, as advocates navigate survivors and families to various services that meet their physical, emotional, and personal needs, even long after a hospital discharge.

Create culturally relevant resources for those who have been exposed to gun violence, particularly in communities of color. This would require that clinicians, providers, and those providing peer-support services share the same ethnicity and similar life experiences as those in impacted communities. Violence intervention specialists with local knowledge and/or lived experience are key in developing culturally relevant resources that resonate with affected communities.These resources should include access to culturally competent and high quality social, emotional and mental health services that address the impact of trauma. Examples of successful violence intervention programs that use trained and culturally-affirming violence intervention and outreach workers include Advance Peace and Cure Violence. Both programs work with violence interrupters or neighborhood change associates with established credibility and relationships in the communities, who intervene and engage in open dialogue with those involved in violence.

Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) victim assistance funding can and should be utilized to support services to gun violence victims and help stem cycles of violence.  These grants should be used to fund community-based organizations providing services to gun violence victims and survivors, including intervention programs and street outreach programs for those impacted by community violence. As of February 2024, only nine states have targeted solicitations to use VOCA funds for gun violence intervention or victim services funding. If all 50 states committed ten percent of their 2019 VOCA funds to gun violence victim services, $225 million could be unlocked for victims of gun violence. These services could include crisis intervention, safety planning, mental health counseling, case management, and peer-to-peer support.

Expand funding addressing intimate partner violence (IPV) and community violence in communities of color. As Waller et al., suggest, additional funding is needed for IPV research, as current funding priorities do not always consider true community needs. For example, data surveillance systems do not capture sufficient and comprehensive data, thereby limiting the ability to determine the true number of homicides resulting from IPV.

Looking Ahead

The evidence uncovered in these and other studies illustrates the importance of implementing policy and programmatic changes to address gun violence, reform policing, and strengthen communities, particularly in Black communities. Strategies must be creative, adequately-funded, and culturally relevant, and address both violence prevention and sequelae associated with exposure to violence.