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Arrested, then traumatized: Black people on what comes after police encounters

NBC News logo NBC News 5/14/2021 Curtis Bunn
a close up of a mans face © Provided by NBC News

When he was 16, Trevor Lawrence was pulled out of line at a sandwich shop in Washington, D.C., by two white police officers. He was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of their cruiser.

Confused and terrified, he asked repeatedly why he had been apprehended. The officers did not respond as they drove for 10 minutes.

Finally, they arrived at a destination Lawrence had never been to. An officer pulled him out of the back seat and placed him in front of an elderly white woman who was standing on the street.

"Is this the boy that robbed you?" one of the cops asked.

In that moment, Lawrence processed all that came with that question and the potential answer. He believed for the first time — but not the last — that he was not in control of his life.

And that realization struck like lightning. "The fear was crippling," he recalled. "My life was in the hands of someone else. I could go to jail on someone's word. It shook me to my core."

It was "luck," he said, that the woman was honest. "No. It was not him," she told the officers.

Her words released a reservoir of tears that Lawrence did not expect but that epitomized the fright and helplessness that engulfed him.

"To be one place enjoying life one minute and, on a whim, the next minute being hauled off for something you had no idea even happened was surreal and scary," said Lawrence, 60, an entrepreneur in Oakland, California. "I didn't know what was going on. But I can tell you this: I can still remember that feeling of having no control over what happened to me. And that's something no one should feel."

The result has left Lawrence wary of law enforcement, a source of lasting trauma that countless Black men say they experience because of encounters that stick with them forever. 

"I see the cops, I go the other way," he said. "It's been that way since that situation. Their presence causes me stress, because I know from my own experience that they can change the course of my life if they feel like it. So if a police car happens to pull up behind me, I turn, even if it's not the street I need to turn on. I just want them away from me. It's stressful. The best way to protect myself is to avoid them."

Lawrence's feelings are similar to those of many Black people who say troubling encounters with law enforcement have eaten at them for years. 

Marvin Burch said he can relate to Lawrence’s experience. He was a 19-year-old student at Norfolk State University in Virginia when he and two friends shopped at a mall. They saw a white man getting arrested for what they later learned was check forgery.

"The man pointed at me as we walked past the bank," said Burch, now 60. "And then a cop asked me to come with him."

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Image: Marvin Burch Image: Marvin Burch

A white officer escorted Burch into the bank, where the detained white man claimed that Burch had given him a forged check and two identifications of a Black man with an Afro.

"It obviously wasn't me," Burch said. "There was no resemblance, and I did not have an Afro." 

But the police officer put him in cuffs anyway and took him to jail, where he spent several hours before he was released on bail.

"I had to hire a lawyer and go to court," Burch said. "We get there and find out the guy who accused me had a long criminal history. The case against me gets thrown out. But it took money I didn't have and years to get the arrest expunged."

The result? "There are thousands of Black men in prison for no reason at all," Burch said. "I could have been one of them. Knowing that makes me sick, even though it was — what? — 41 years ago now.

"Every time I see a cop, I go: 'Oh no. What now?' I expect something to happen. Something like that sticks with you in a bad way." 

Burch said that decades later,  his weekly therapy sessions often focus on that experience. "It comes out in my sessions," he said. "The therapy has been good for me, though, because it gives me moments of relief. The best days I have are the days when I'm able to get it out. But then I see something on TV and I'm snapped back to reality." 

That reality can be particularly harsh for Black men, said Dr. Terrell Holloway, a psychiatrist at Yale University, because not only does it cause lifelong mental anguish, but the stress can translate into physical issues, as well.

"This chronic stress is manifested in anyone that experiences discrimination. It is just that we, Black people, experience discrimination more than others," Holloway said. "In normal circumstances, when stressed or traumatized, your brain activates your 'fight or flight response' or sympathetic response, which in the short term is adaptive and meant for you to get out of danger."

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Image: Terrell Holloway (Yale Medical School) © Yale Medical School Image: Terrell Holloway (Yale Medical School)

However, constant stress, Holloway said, ignites various health conditions, including heart disease and high blood pressure.

Furthermore, Holloway said, "early exposure to racism by Black children potentiates the reaction to subsequent micro- and macroaggressions" — discrimination or environmental indignities.

Brandon Gamble, who teaches psychology at Oakwood University, a historically Black college in Huntsville, Alabama, said anxiety among Black Americans related to policing and racism is so prevalent that a friend's 17-year-old son did not want a driver's license "because of the way police might treat me," he said. 

"That's mind-blowing," Gamble said. "But there are so many cases where we see this ongoing chronic trauma that has been unabated. We're constantly under threat simply because of the color of our skin — and even those who have not directly experienced it have seen enough to be traumatized."

Burch said: "What I know is this: I can't really express what my first experience with white cops was like. You have to feel it. You have to have gone through it — the lack of humanity, the humiliation, the 'I-can-do-whatever-I-want-to-you-and-you-can-do-nothing-about-it.' ... It stays with you all your life. It raises my blood pressure just talking about it." 

Andrew Smith Jr., 37, of New York, was reluctant to share his encounter, fearful that there would be retaliation. Eventually, he said his experience with law enforcement 13 years ago causes him "stress every time I think about it, which is every day."

Smith said he and three friends were walking in Manhattan when police officers approached with guns drawn. Confused and frightened, they were forced to lie facedown on the ground in handcuffs as the officers searched them.

When the screaming stopped, Smith said, they were told that "a suspicious gang" of men had "caused havoc."

"Now, we were laughing and joking among ourselves, and then they show up ready to shoot us," he said. "They had us on the ground for about 10 minutes. They said all this 'fit the description' crap. After they looked us up and saw we didn't have a record, they got us up and let us go. No apology. Like they were doing us a favor to not arrest us for doing nothing.

"Man, I don't even like thinking about it. It's something you cannot get out of your head. Had nightmares about it — recently."

Shaunda C. Boyd, a psychologist in Los Angeles who counsels patients in cognitive psychology, among other areas, recounted an experience that rocked her on Super Bowl Sunday this year. She said she was home alone sleeping as she recovered from surgery when her home alarm went off.

a close up of a girl smiling for the camera: Image: Shaunda Boyd. Image: Shaunda Boyd.

While she was on the phone with the alarm company, Boyd checked the house and found that it was a false alarm. "I told them not to send police," she said. 

But a few minutes later, she heard loud banging at her front door. Pushing a small walker, she opened the door to be greeted by four white police officers with guns drawn and a stun gun.

"I had never seen anything like that," she said. "I told them 'I have a cellphone in my hand.' They made me step out of my house and take a seat. I could hear them going through my house, yelling, 'Clear. Clear. Clear.' 

"Finally, they came out, and their whole demeanor changed. They were nice and complimented me on my house. But when they left, I thought of Breonna Taylor, who was also sleeping in her bed. And I burst into tears. I was traumatized. And if my man had been here, it could have been really bad. 

"So while our Black men are suffering from this form of PTSD, Black women are, as well. I see it with my patients. We have some healing to do. And healing is what hurts. You get injured, and it's the rehab that is painful. That's where we are."

Gamble said that ultimately, the suffering will not end until those stricken find a "safe space to be affirmed." 

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Image: Brandon Gamble Image: Brandon Gamble

"Black people's dignity has been assailed — that's not a small thing. It's a big thing," he said. "So we have to find spaces and places to talk about these things. The 'manosphere' of social media isn't offering respite from this trauma. It's offering a vehicle for anger, which is a start, because you're acknowledging something bad has happened. But it's not a healing space or the full circle that's needed.

"We're challenged by this ongoing trauma. It doesn't stop unless you actually address it. It impacts your ability to learn, your ability to have quality relationships, your health. We cannot count on law enforcement to change. So we're dealing with so much that we can't be politically correct about it. We just have to say what's on our minds in a safe environment. The shame, of course, is that it's this way only because we're Black."

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