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PHR Medical and Mental Health Experts Find that Protestors Experienced Individual and Collective Trauma from NYPD Attack in the Bronx in June 2020

New York City government must act to address harms perpetrated by police against protestors and broader Mott Haven, Bronx community

After the New York City Police Department (NYPD) kettled and attacked a group of about 300 protestors during an anti-police brutality protest in the Bronx on June 4, 2020, demonstrators experienced both individual and collective trauma, according to an independent assessment conducted by medical and mental health experts with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). 

Due to the harms sustained by both individual protestors and the broader Mott Haven community, the PHR experts call on the City of New York to take substantive and meaningful actions to repair the damage caused by the city’s police force on June 4, including redress for the individual protestors and measures to address the broader community trauma in Mott Haven, South Bronx.

PHR medical and mental health experts conducted an independent assessment of the Notices of Claim of 23 of the Mott Haven protestors. A Notice of Claim is an approximately two-page form used to notify the City of New York that someone intends to file a lawsuit against a city agency, which summarizes injuries but does not provide an exhaustive account of the incident. PHR’s clinicians cannot offer formal diagnoses because they did not conduct clinical interviews with or examinations of the demonstrators. However, following a thorough review of available documentation, the experts conclude that all 23 of the claimants report mental health symptoms consistent with traumatic exposures to the violent actions of the NYPD on June 4, 2020.

In the experts’ opinion, protestors’ descriptions of their experiences meet the diagnostic criteria for traumatic events in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Nineteen of the 23 claimants describe experiencing cardinal symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety since the events at the Mott Haven protest and police crackdown.

The analysis was conducted by Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, Sarah Y. Vinson, MD, and Jack Saul, PhD, who are leading experts in the fields of public health, human rights, and mental health, with research and writing support from Brianna da Silva Bhatia, MD.

The Bronx Defenders, a Bronx-based legal assistance nonprofit organization, is representing these 23 Mott Haven protestors, each of whom was detained and arrested by the NYPD during the June 4, 2020 protest. These 23 people are members of the Mott Haven Collective that is now calling for the City of New York to provide reparations to the community to begin to repair the damage caused by the NYPD’s June 4 attack and the long history of racially-biased police violence in the Bronx. In December 2020, the Bronx Defenders asked PHR to provide an analysis of the physical and psychological consequences of the individual and community-level trauma stemming from these police actions, including an analysis of both mental and physical harms.

The resulting expert statement offers five key sets of insights: an analysis of the patterns and types of traumatic events experienced by the 23 protestors; a review of the scientific literature about mental health harms resulting from police violence; an assessment of the mental health symptoms described in the protestors’ Notices of Claim, and their relation to diagnostic criteria for psychological disorders; a targeted review of the scientific literature on community trauma relevant to the NYPD actions on June 4, 2020; and recommended principles to guide individual and systemic responses to address the harms sustained by individual protestors and the Mott Haven community.

“The egregious and violent NYPD actions led to significant mental health harms among protestors who experienced violence, arrest, and detention on June 4, as seen in their reports of symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, statement co-author, medical director at PHR, and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan. “Beyond the impacts on individuals, the violence perpetrated by the NYPD on June 4, 2020 created community and collective trauma in Mott Haven. As a clinician and researcher on the effects of traumatic human rights violations, it is clear to me that the 23 protestors whose cases we have analyzed, as well as the broader community of Mott Haven, should receive acknowledgement and redress from the City of New York.”

“Police violence not only directly harms the physical and mental health of individuals, it also harms families and communities by contributing to a climate of fear, chronic stress, and lowered resistance to diseases – even among those not directly harmed by police,” said Jack Saul, PhD, statement co-author, licensed psychologist, and director of the International Trauma Studies Program. “Viewing what happened in Mott Haven on June 4 through a collective trauma lens is particularly important in order to address the destruction of human connections by police violence and structural racism. Collective trauma requires collective responses – in this case, a reparative process that includes accountability for unacceptable and illegal behavior and the development of a broader collective narrative which places police violence in the context of societal racial injustice.”

“The path forward must be predicated on a commitment to providing the people of Mott Haven with a sense of safety, support, and security,” said Sarah Y. Vinson, MD, statement co-author, principal consultant of Lorio Forensics, and co-editor of Social (In)Justice and Mental Health. “The most critical mental health interventions are not medication or therapy. They are fed bellies, stable homes, legitimate opportunity, and meaningful connection. Multi-factorial systemic forces are implicated, so multi-factorial systemic solutions are indicated.”

“The Mott Haven protest was peaceful and nonviolent.  It is chilling that instead of protecting the protestors and residents in Mott Haven on June 4, the NYPD intimidated and harmed the community,” said Brianna da Silva Bhatia, MD, statement co-author, internal medicine physician, and PHR research intern. “Police excessive force is a public health crisis that continues to afflict our society.  The physical and mental health harms perpetuated by inequity, systemic racism, and abusive policing damage individuals and communities, resulting in intergenerational trauma.  New York and the NYPD have a unique opportunity now to take responsibility, evaluate the meaning of justice, and initiate a reparative process.”

“PHR’s report confirms what our clients have been saying and living with since the NYPD’s June 4th attack in the Bronx: the racially-biased police violence that day caused trauma to both the protestors and the community, in addition to the serious physical injuries that many suffered,” said Seth Packrone, an attorney with the Impact Litigation Practice at The Bronx Defenders, the legal group representing the Mott Haven Collective. “City officials must provide substantial support and resources to the Bronx and injured protesters now to begin to repair the damage the NYPD has wrought.”

To respond to the individual and collective harms stemming from the June 4 police violence in Mott Haven, the expert authors of the statement recommend eight principles to guide efforts to secure justice and accountability at the individual and systemic levels: 

  1. The Mott Haven community must be involved in all decisions and plans, in order to promote community recovery.
  2. Inclusive, evidence-based, and person-centered mental health resources must be provided for protestors and community members.
  3. A health workforce must be created that understands trauma, ensuring that health care services for the community of Mott Haven meet the highest standards of trauma-informed health care.
  4. Funding must be increased for services that help meet social determinants of health, including social services, housing, employment, education, healthy food, green space, and other community services. 
  5. Law enforcement and governing must be aligned with anti-racist actions and policies, including through monitoring and documenting inequities in order to identify racist practices and policies in law enforcement and governing.
  6. There must be accountability for police officers who used excessive force, with a guarantee that perpetrators of police violence will be disciplined and held to account by their departments.
  7. Health care workers must be empowered to be allies to social justice movements and should be encouraged, supported, and funded to help make underserved communities like Mott Haven safer and healthier.
  8. Reforms must go beyond Mott Haven for equitable and meaningful change, and governing bodies across the United States must rigorously examine police-community relations and the structures and systems that have allowed policing to be violent and trauma inducing. 

Read the full expert statement here.

About the June 4, 2020 protest and police response in Mott Haven:

On the evening of June 4, 2020, a demonstration against police violence began in the predominantly Black and Brown Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx borough of New York City. Just before 8:00 p.m., when a curfew imposed by the city would take effect, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) encircled (“kettled”) approximately 300 protestors who had been marching and prevented their dispersal. Shortly after 8:00 p.m., police officers climbed onto vehicles, punched, kicked, and beat people with batons, threw people to the ground, dragged people through the streets, and launched chemical irritants and kinetic impact projectiles. The NYPD conducted mass arrests, with a reported 263 people arrested, including legal observers, medics, and essential workers. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, law enforcement officials crammed large groups of people into transport vans and into small holding cells for hours, and removed facial masks of some of the detained. Many police officers were reportedly not wearing masks. There were reports of absent, blocked, and delayed medical care for protestors’ injuries.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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