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Each night, after our 7-year-old son falls asleep, my wife or I go into his room to re-tuck him in. Even if he is perfectly fine, we will find something to fuss with — his covers, a stuffed animal — to make him a little more comfortable and a little safer.

The night that body camera footage of the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer was released, I was preparing to give a talk on antiracism. I couldn’t watch the video, and have avoided watching deadly encounters like these for years. In the intensive care units I work in, we try to ease suffering from patients who are dying. I just can’t bear to see images of death filled with terror and pain.

I stared at my slides, wondering how I could capture what I was feeling as my wife came downstairs in tears. I immediately knew why. My heart sank.

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I remember this gut-wrenching feeling when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered in 2014 by Cleveland police officers. My son, then just short of 1 year old, was asleep in my arms as I watched the footage. I told myself that I had time before I had to worry about my son. Beginning at age 10, Black boys are viewed by society as older than their true age, and more of a threat.

Like many health professionals, I have spent a lot of time over the course of the pandemic thinking about how to communicate public health risk. For months, I have been counseling people over the risk of things such as going to the gym, the grocery store, or traveling. I’ve talked about when to wear a mask, what kind of mask to wear, and the risk of aerosols. I’ve also talked about how safe the vaccines are in comparison to how dangerous Covid-19 is.

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Recent news of the pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has renewed my conversations about risk. I’ve reassured people that the risk of the vaccine causing blood clots is very low, and the benefit of its protection from severe Covid-19 is massive. Even so, the Food and Drug Administration paused vaccination efforts while it and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collect more data. The message is that safety must be the priority.

In the meantime, Black, Latino, and other people of color continue to die from a different public health threat: police brutality. As the New York Times reported on April 17, since testimony began on March 29 in the case of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is on trial for killing George Floyd last year, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide. Black and Latino people account for more than half of those killed.

The country just paused an entire vaccine rollout because of a complication with a risk of 1 in 1 million. For Black men, the lifetime risk of being killed by police is 1 in 1,000. For Latino men, it is 1 in 1,800.

Where is our pause?

Most police officers do their jobs in honorable and respectful ways, and most interactions with police do not have tragic endings. Yet the risk to people of color is real. And with each mural created and each tearful family on TV recalling memories of their loved ones, it grows more and more visceral.

I dread the day I have to tell my son about how the world will view him.

Taison D. Bell is director of the medical ICU and assistant professor of medicine in the divisions of Infectious Disease and Pulmonary/Critical Care Medicine at the University of Virginia, and co-founder of Owl Peak Labs.

  • I believe your stats are correct, but completely out of context and mixing apples/oranges.
    1. You are using lifetime stats. 100% of all people will die. If you included cancer/heart disease they would be 900 in 1,000.
    2. Any given year 300 blacks (10 unarmed) die from police (Washington Post)
    3. More whites are killed by police than ALL minorities combined (Washington Post)
    4. Blacks commit 53% of all serious crime (murder, rape, robbery), but make up 13% population. This interaction causes the higher per capita police interactions with blacks.

    THESE ARE THE FACTS AND THEY ARE INARGUABLE !!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • Thank you for taking the time to write this and for being brave enough to publish. I find the lack of empathy and ignorance in the comments appalling. How people can rationalize such simplistic views is beyond me. The “just do as you are told” excuse is ridiculous. What about people with mental illness or substance abuse or even autism? What if someone is literally unable to do as they are told? This is a complex problem. Simple answers do not apply.

  • Mr. Bell : raise your son to respect respect, to understand right and wrong, to not feel permanently victimized, and to comply with police instructions. Raise him to understand values, education, the laws of normal behaviour, and to not break these laws, and to avoid suspicious-looking behaviour as logically that attracts the attention of police. That is exactly what non-black and non-latino boys (and girls) learn too. All people – white or of what-ever color – are to do what the police tells them to – because the police IS law enforcement.

  • While the country is focused on jury deliberations in the death of one man, there were 80 other homicide victims in Minneapolis during 2020. Maybe 80 doesn’t sound like many, but scaled up for population that would be about 1600 homicide deaths in New York City. NYC recorded 462 homicides in 2020.

    Of the victims of homicide in Minneapolis during 2020, 8 out of 10 were black. Black people comprise 18% of the population, but 80.8% of the homicide victims. Black men were 73.1% of the homicides and they die at a much younger age than others.

    Can we finally have a conversation about the rest of the black men dying on the streets of this country?

    PS-Has anyone heard of Bryan Eugene Andren? He is a 47 year-old white man killed by police officers during a traffic stop on January 8, 2021 in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. Didn’t think so.

    • Why does the media never cover whites being killed by the police by are by far the greatest number killed?
      To continue to frame this as a POC problem is in injustice. It’s a “people problem”as the the father of Andre Hill stated. Remember him?
      Disappeared from the media overnight why?
      Because he was to light skinned?

    • Why does the media never cover whites being killed by the police they are by far the greatest number killed?
      To continue to frame this as a only POC problem is in injustice.
      It’s a “people problem”as the the father of Andre Hill stated. Remember him?
      Disappeared from the media overnight why?
      Because he was to light skinned?
      Where’s the outrage over Andres death.

  • Why is it Never pointed out that blks Seldom do as told by the police? Floyd would be Alive had he gotten into the car & done as requested!!

    • Renee – you are 100% correct. The police are the very brave strong men and women whose job includes law enforcement. If people do not listen to the police, then these people have to be expecting consequences – no matter what color their skin is. It seems that certain people need to wake up to the fact that agressive non-compliant reaction to a police order WILL have consequences. I hope the police all get body-cams, so that the reason for strong police action becomes very clear – more often than not it is perpetrated by non-compliance.

  • When 13% of the population is responsible for 52% of the crimes, it is no wonder that some police officers overreact in the heat of the moment when the perpetrator happens to be a person “of color.”

    • With respect, I doubt that ANY data, statistics or facts will have a meaningful place in this discussion.

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