OPINION: Constant Exposure To Police Brutality Videos Takes A Devastating Toll

For a moment in May, it felt like the entire world was talking about George Floyd. It was almost impossible to escape the video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a 43-year-old Black man for nearly 9 minutes.

As a Black British woman, I mourned for Floyd, his family and friends, but also for Black people around the world who were watching the harrowing footage. This was not the first video I had seen of an unarmed Black person dying at the hands of the police, nor was it the first time I had heard the words ‘I can’t breathe’ in this context.

Social media has become a global stage for exposing police brutality and racial injustice. To be sure, the seemingly non-stop flow of harrowing footage has been essential in helping to raise awareness. Yet these platforms mean repeated, almost cyclical exposure to Black death. With cell phones capturing live footage and social media propelling it to millions, that trauma is transcending to black communities not just in the U.S., but around the world.

One recent U.S. study found that being confronted by images of police killings of unarmed black Americans can impact the mental health of other black American adults for months. For Black people like myself, the videos are a constant reminder that at any moment ‘this could be you.’ I grew up in the city of Manchester, where a constant police presence in my community was sadly normal.

I didn’t realise at the time how many Black people around the world faced the same reality as me or how tensions would escalate until we all saw death on camera. The stream of these videos showing police violence had a profound psychological impact on me. Like many people of colour who watched the George Floyd video, I didn’t have time to take a mental break.

When I wasn’t working or studying, all I could do was talk about it, read about it and engage with others who, like me, felt a sense of mourning for a man they’d never met. After Floyd’s death, I wanted to find out about the impact watching police violence was having on Black people’s mental health and ways the community dealt with the collective trauma it causes.

I spoke to Marcia Rigg whose brother Sean Rigg died following a cardiac arrest after he was restrained while in police custody in 2008. For her, Floyd’s death felt particularly close to home. “Seeing the footage of George Floyd being killed in that way. It just brought back all the memories flooding back of my brother. When I heard the family speak, and I felt that pain, I know that pain,” she told me.

The officers involved were cleared of misconduct and no criminal charges were raised. But even for those with no direct experience of police violence, many black viewers around the world felt terror. A student named Esther told me she was unable to watch the video of Floyd’s death through to the end. “It’s very, very traumatic to see how a human being is being treated in that. Because I feel like I’m insecure. I was really traumatised for two good days. I was so so so down.”

When it comes to watching traumatic footage online, one study found around 20% of viewers showed signs of post traumatic stress disorder, even though none of them showed signs of previous trauma and weren’t at the event. I found no comparable studies in the UK despite there being so many parallel cases of police violence. Black people account for 3% of the population in Britain but 8% of deaths in police custody.

Experts told me that improving access to mental health services for Black people in Britain was a key part of the puzzle. That makes sense to me. We desperately need more studies on the impact of footage of police violence on the mental health of Black Britons. And if we aren’t able to have a serious national discussion about racial trauma, the suffering could go on for another generation. 


By Lisa Hanley. Image: Simon Dawson, Thomson Reuters Foundation