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Officials seek to shift resources away from policing to address Black 'public health crisis'

Anna Almendrala, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

From Boston to San Bernardino, California, communities across the U.S. are declaring racism a public health crisis.

Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic's disproportionate impact on communities of color, as well as the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, cities and counties are calling for more funding for health care and other public services, sometimes at the expense of the police budget.

It's unclear whether the public health crisis declarations, which are mostly symbolic, will result in more money for programs that address health disparities rooted in racism. But officials in a few communities that made the declaration last year say it helped them anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic. Some say the new perspective could expand the role of public health officials in local government, especially when it comes to reducing police brutality against Black and Latino residents.

The declarations provide officials a chance to decide "whether they are or are not going to be the chief health strategists in their community," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

"I've had a firm view (that) what hurts people or kills people is mine," said Benjamin, a former state health officer in Maryland. "I may not have the authority to change it all by myself, but by being proactive, I can do something about that."

While health officials have long recognized the impact of racial disparities on health, the surge of public support for the Black Lives Matter movement is spurring calls to move from talk to financial action.

 

In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared racism a public health crisis on June 12 and a few days later submitted a budget that transferred 20% of the Boston Police Department's overtime budget -- $12 million -- to services like public and mental health, housing and homelessness programs. The budget must be approved by the City Council.

In California, the San Bernardino County board on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. The board was spurred by a community coalition that is pushing mental health and substance abuse treatment as alternatives to incarceration. The coalition wants to remove police from schools and reduce the use of a gang database they say is flawed and unfairly affects the Black community.

The city of Columbus and Franklin County, Ohio, made similar declarations in June and May, respectively, while Ingham County, Michigan, passed a resolution June 9. All three mention the coronavirus pandemic's disproportionate toll on minority residents.

Those localities follow in the footsteps of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, which last year became the first jurisdiction in the country to declare racism a public health crisis, citing infant and maternal mortality rates among Blacks. The county's focus on the issue primed officials to look for racial disparities in COVID-19, said Nicole Brookshire, executive director of the county's Office on African American Affairs.

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