My favorite piece in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health is a short commentary by Dr. Alexis Dinno on the use of force to evict Occupy Wall Street protesters, done ostensibly to protect public health and safety. Dr. Dinno writes, "[w]here was and is the condemnation on the part of public health professionals of this unethical, unconscionable, and flagrant usurpation of public health prerogatives? The increasingly militarized and publically unaccountable police systems in this country pose growing harm to the public, so much so that large police divisions are under the threat of federal receivership."
The expulsion of Occupy protesters was indeed disgraceful. The Washington Post reports that New York police raided the Zucotti Park camp in the early hours of the morning, used pepper spray and batons on dissenters, and destroyed property. Complaints about excessive use of force are not unique to the Occupy raids. The Cato Institute has published statistics on police misconduct in their National Police Misconduct Reporting Project. Their 2010 Annual Report lists 127 fatalities attributed to credible complaints of excessive force, and 4,861 reports overall involving over 6,600 officers.
I have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology. I chose not to continue with it for multiple reasons, not least of which was my discomfort with the inertia in the field. Anthropologists have historically played the role of the observer, rather than advocate. It seems to me that if you build a relationship and career around a community, you owe those people something in return. I think the tides in Anthropology are turning, but meanwhile I have chosen instead to study epidemiology. Public health has the same strong sense of community as anthropology, but public health professionals both learn from and serve the communities with which they are involved.
Public health practitioners have an obligation to stand with those we serve, and to speak out against threats to the health and safety of our communities. Regardless of politics and opinions around Occupy Wall Street itself, Dr. Dinno is right to ask, “[w]here is the epidemiological accounting of state violence (by the police, military, and penal systems) as a public health issue domestically and abroad?…Why do we in public health permit the police and those who deploy them to adopt the mantle of public health without criticism?” The AJPH commentary reminded me why I chose public health, and why the profession still has work to do.
Source: Alexis Dinno. Do Riot Police Serve Public Health? American Journal of Public Health February 2013: Vol. 103, No. 2, pp. e5-e5. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.301156
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