CHICAGO — Marques Watts, 18, remembers his first encounter with police at the age of 13, when he was in eighth grade. Visiting his father, who lived in Skokie, Illinois, Watts was walking to Dunkin’ Donuts with his headphones on listening to music to get some morning coffee. That’s when a white police officer flipped on his lights and stopped him.
“He asked me where I was going, to empty my pockets … I had my hands in my pockets,” Watts said. “I believe it was a two- or three-minute talk, but it felt like a lifetime because of my feeling anxious and scared. All I remember is the fear of I didn’t want to make any wrong moves. At that age, I didn’t really know how to interact with police. Part of me is thinking ‘oh, this is something that everybody goes through,’ but I still felt off about it because I felt like I wasn’t doing nothing wrong.”
It’s interactions like Watts’ that Dr. Monique Jindal, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researched in a recent Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics review.
“The impetus behind it was knowing that Black youth are experiencing disproportionate contact with police,” Jindal said. “And really trying to understand what does that mean for them and, yes, death is the worst possible health outcome, but what lies in between and what might that mean for a child.”
The work, which looks at qualitative and quantitative data from 1980 to the present, showed exposure to police from people up to age 26 — even in instances where officers provide assistance — may be detrimental to the health and well-being of Black youth. The data revealed interaction with law enforcement can be associated with poor mental health, substance use, risky sexual behaviors and impaired safety.
“We started in 1980 because that was when community policing, even though it was instituted a little bit earlier, became pretty universal,” Jindal said. “We were looking at quantitative and qualitative studies to give voice to these experiences … to really understand what those encounters look like.”
That meant encounters that had an indication of some sort of police contact — completely benign police contact, use of force, getting a citation, getting arrested and some sort of indicator of health (mental or physical health) and safety.
A look at the qualitative information in the paper offers illustrative quotes from police encounters:
“We was [sitting] in the car; we was just sittin’ in there. [Police] got us out the car, check[ed] us and said he found some drugs in the car. And [the officers] said, ‘One of ya’ll goin’ with us.’ [To decide] they said, ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a [racial slur] by his throat.’”
“Yes, you’re worried and you’re sitting there scared. … that’s stress you got to deal with every single day. If you roll [drive] you have to be nervous with your life … it’s dangerous.”