For Survivors of Police Violence, Healing Remains Elusive

By Seth Sandronsky and Michelle Renee Matisons 05/09/18

“In the wake of the deaths of black people at the hands of the state – from the police to the prison system – the living are often weighted with a sadness that is too heavy to bear."

Flyer with drawing of people in silhouette with text: Safe spaces
What happens to family and community members after someone has been murdered by police?

“When you lose a child it isn’t something that just sits in your heart. It’s in your mind. It darkens your spirit.” - Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother

You may recall a few years back, Michael Brown’s murder by police in Ferguson, Missouri renewed anti-policing protests nationwide, and jump started the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) organization.

BLM also connects personal suffering with political struggle through the concept of “Healing Justice” which is described in detail on the official BLM website: “In many ways, at its essence BLM is a response to the persistent and historical trauma Black people have endured at the hands of the State.”

As BLM’s Healing Justice initiative explains, the victims’ surviving loved ones can experience detrimental health issues caused by stress, guilt, and grief. Frequently these issues remain untreated due to systemic denial and lack of accountability, leaving communities to their own healing devices with little financial resources.

Sacramento, California provides the latest case of a community needing this support. On March 18, Stephon Clark lost his life when two Sacramento police shot and killed the 22-year-old father of two in his grandma’s backyard, caught on their video cameras. Clark was unarmed.

On March 30, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a famous forensic pathologist whose research on links between football and traumatic brain injuries the NFL failed to discredit, conducted a private autopsy that concluded eight of the 20 police bullets fired at Clark struck him. Six shots entered his back. He died 3 to 10 minutes later, according to Dr. Omalu.

Clark’s brother, Stevante, appeared in the national news seeking both police accountability and mental health services. Stevante Clark has been actively discussing his struggle with PTSD, exacerbated by his brother’s harrowing death, a death that was shown repeatedly on TV and the web.

Another example is Erica Garner’s tragic death. Erica, Eric Garner’s 27-year-old daughter, became an activist after a New York City police officer choked her father to death on July 17, 2014. Like Clark, Eric Garner was unarmed.

Erica Garner suffered immense health problems after her father’s death. On December 20, 2017, she was buried after an asthma-induced heart attack took her life.

At her funeral, the Reverend Al Sharpton said that “her heart was attacked that day [her father was killed].”

University of Texas, Austin associate professor Christen A. Smith’s research corroborates police violence’s detrimental health impacts on survivors like Erica Garner. Smith explains: “In the wake of the deaths of black people at the hands of the state – from the police to the prison system – the living are often weighted with a sadness that is too heavy to bear, and in the weeks and months following the initial death of a loved one, they become sick and many die prematurely.”

One major obstacle to rectifying this situation is that justice for police shooting deaths remains elusive; the public awaits formal legal verdicts, if officers are charged at all.

There are some victim compensation resources in place. Information Officer Janice Mackey with the California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB) states that the organization compensates victims’ financial needs “when the preponderance of the evidence shows that a death or injury was the result of crime.”

CalVCB guidelines can cover “up to $10,000 for mental health treatment and those seeking services can choose treatment from any licensed professional (such as clinical social worker, marriage family therapist or psychologist).”

While CalVCB’s impressive 2017 record provided $19 million in counseling services, the system creates obstacles for police violence victims.

On paper those who have lost a loved one at police officers’ hands should readily qualify for support services, but those services may not be forthcoming.

The lack of mental support services relates to the public’s polarized view of police violence. Some view an incident like Clark’s death as evidence of trigger-happy and structurally racist policing, while others believe officers involved in civilian murders are hapless victims of complicated circumstances.

What happens to family and community members after someone has been murdered by police?

One silver lining forming around the ominous cloud of rampant police violence is that healing justice is taking a more distinctive shape. Mental health is included within community organizing efforts; Sacramento provides one example of mental healing as a community issue.

As Black Lives Matter’s explicitly political agenda reminds us, survivors of police violence can experience a maddening sense of loss, leading mental health professionals to innovate new “culturally responsive” approaches.

One such approach is described by Dr. Kristee Haggins, an African-centered psychologist who facilitates Sacramento’s Safe Black Space: A Healing Circle by and for People of African Ancestry.

Organized by Haggins and other mental health providers, faith leaders, educators, and community members, Safe Black Space was initiated after Stephon Clark’s murder to provide “a space specifically for Black people to address the traumatic responses they may be experiencing as a result of the killing.” Since people of color are particularly targeted by police, it’s important to design healing spaces with this in mind. Haggins explains that given the historic conditions of African people, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" can also be thought of as "Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder.”

The best way to think about this disorder is to look at the U.S. history of chattel slavery and white supremacy, according to Jamila Land of Sacramento, a close friend of the Clark family. “African Americans have been and are subject to systematic violence,” she said. “What we see today appears to be out of control due to technology such as cell phones and social media. Yet the reality is that such violence is not new at all.

“It just looks different from the past violence of tarring and feathering and lynching of African Americans before large crowds of whites,” said Land, who grew up in West Oakland. Currently, she works with the Love Not Blood Campaign, co-founded by Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby’ Johnson, whose unarmed nephew Oscar Grant was shot and killed by Johannes Mehserle, a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer, on January 1, 2009.

The LNBC has formed a Family Intervention Crisis Team that consists of people working together to support each other and to embrace newly affected victims. “When fatal incidents with police occur, your entire life is changed overnight,” Land said. “The psychological impact is so traumatic that you do not get time to grieve.” Accordingly, culturally sensitive solutions to race-based trauma provide necessary help to grieving families.

While Haggins does not deny that “traditional mental health services can be helpful” she has already witnessed the need for community healing circles in the wake of Clark’s murder. She describes the idea further: “There is another layer of help and healing that can happen at the community level. I was surprised by the need... Our initial decision to offer our first healing circle in April happened very quickly... fifty people showed up.”

Mental health services after a traumatic death like Stephon Clark’s remain inaccessible due to health care coverage disparities. For example, about half of Californians are covered by employer-based coverage, and about a third are on Medi-Cal-- that’s 13-plus million people. There's about 6 million on Medicare, and that overlaps with the Medicaid number due to seniors and people with disabilities who use both. According to Anthony Wright, head of Health Access California, a consumer advocacy group: “About 8 percent or 2.5 million buy coverage as individuals--with around half of that getting subsidies through Covered California.”

Undocumented adults (10 percent of the labor force and 58 percent of the uninsured), do not have access to the Affordable Care Act and Medi-Cal.

The University California at Berkeley Labor Center estimates the remaining uninsured in the Golden State at 3 million, which means they neither have ACA, individual coverage, employer-sponsored insurance or Medi-Cal coverage. In Sacramento, an estimated 112,000 people were uninsured in August 2016.

According to Samantha Mott, the Communication and Media Officer 2 at Sacramento County’s Department of Health and Human Services, there are three ways for people to access mental health services in the county: contact their primary care provider via the ACA or Medi-Cal coverage; phone the county crisis line for a 24/7 assessment; or walk into the one county mental health urgent care facility on Stockton Boulevard across from the UC Davis Medical Center.

Against this backdrop of hard-to-obtain or inaccessible treatment, it's even more imperative that the community stay vigilant and create alternative mental health spaces that meet people’s direct needs.

For information about the next Safe Black Space healing circle, contact Dr. Kristee Haggins at [email protected]; visit; or call (530) 683-5101. For information about an upcoming LNBC conference in June, email [email protected].

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