Study Shows Police Shootings Could Affect Black Infant Health

Supermajority Education Fund

December 13, 2019

Police shootings of unarmed Black people could be associated with worse health for Black infants born to mothers who live close to these killings, according to research published on December 4 by the journal Science Advances. These findings showed that in utero exposure to police killings that were within 0.62 miles of a mother’s residence substantially reduces the birth weight of Black infants, which makes up a third to a fifth of the black-white gap in birth weight.

Maternal deaths and poor infant health outcomes are already disproportionately high for Black parents and infants. The national maternal mortality ratio is 40.0 deaths per 100,000 live births for Black women compared to 12.4 for white women, 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. Black mothers are three times more likely to have a baby with a low birth weight and the rate of premature births for Black mothers is 50 percent higher than for white mothers. 

Stress due to discrimination is a significant factor contributing to Black infants’ health outcomes. According to the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the stress Black people experience from racism can lead to chronic stress, which affects the immune system and can lead to premature birth and low birth weight. A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study found that police killings of unarmed Black people caused other Black people more poor mental health days.

The barriers Black women face in healthcare systems may also contribute to maternal and infant health, like, “institutional and interpersonal racism, including poverty, unemployment, and residential segregation,” according to a 2018 article published in the journal Health Equity. A 2017 study found that living in minority communities that have a high concentration of use of force by police is associated with a higher risk of diabetes and obesity — and that minorities face an increased risk of poor health outcomes residing in areas where there is a high concentration of white people and that have large racial differences in police use of force.

Joscha Legewie, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University and author of the new research on police killings and Black infant health, told Supermajority News that, for a long time, researchers have studied how policing affects crime rates, but his work is part of a growing body of research that looks at the social consequences of policing.

“I think there is an emerging literature that tries to understand these consequences better both for policing in general, particularly broken-windows policing, but also for police violence in particular,” Legewie said. “I think we’re starting to understand more about those consequences but it’s very much the beginning of that work.”