Our America faces a grim reality: a public health crisis, exacerbated by failures at the federal and state governmental level. I am not speaking about the coronavirus and the disruption to our financial markets caused by COVID-19, but instead about the public health crisis of police brutality against our black citizens, which wreaks havoc on our society and disrupts our economy, individual lives and the public health of the country as a whole
It is useless right now to look for someone to blame. Much like a debate about vaccinating your children, or the 45th president, most people already have their minds made up. What is more pressing is how we address the public health crisis that is police brutality, and, if it is a public health crisis we’re addressing, we ought to use public health tools.
When considering community interventions in medicine, the conventional wisdom is early interventions are almost always better, more cost effective, and result in longer-term preservation of health. Take diabetes intervention as an example. It is better to adopt an active lifestyle and varied diet early in the disease than it is to amputate a limb later in the disease. This is a widely accepted concept in medicine that could easily be applied to policing.
Rather than employing a reactive peacekeeping force, imagine if we engaged a proactive one, a group of social workers committed to stopping crime before it started, rather than an entire system deployed to punish people who commit crime — not a dystopian punishment-based unit, but a utopian community-outreach system.
A 2014 study found that for every 10 non-profits in a community, there was a 10% reduction in violent crime and a 7% reduction in property crime. Each crime not committed removes a scenario where an officer must choose between the use of lethal force or de-escalation. Each crime not committed reduces the load on our jails and prisons. Each crime not committed represents the possibility of a person pursue their future in a productive, positive manner.
Another policy that police departments can adopt from the medical field is the concept of malpractice insurance. Far from being a negative tool, malpractice insurance is the medical system’s way of acknowledging that we ask imperfect humans to do a job where there can be no acceptable margin of error, where a mistake can literally be life or death. We know that a mistake is unacceptable. We also know that our surgeons, pharmacists, nurses and administrators are human beings and they make mistakes. Malpractice insurance is our way of proactively trying to make these mistakes right, a way of acknowledging imperfection and culpability.
Malpractice payouts are not admissions of guilt, and they’re not usually frivolous. Instead, these payments are a way for the system to acknowledge mistakes are made when human beings fulfill their jobs. Malpractice insurance also doesn’t excuse negligent conduct, such as callous brutality. Implementing malpractice insurance for police officers would give the force a way to make restitution while retaining their hard-fought legal immunity. It would also give administrators a clear number on which officers are running the highest bill in terms of misconduct settlements.
There is no single easy cure for police violence, just as there isn’t one cure for other diseases that plague society. Our job, as citizens, is to play the same role as diligent health care workers and patient advocates. We should seek solutions at every turn to improve the health of ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities. We must never forget that people’s lives literally depend on us.
Michael Kennedy-Yoon is a second-year medical student at the University of Utah and a lifelong Utah resident.