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.
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.
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?
We 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 1000.
Where is our pause? https://t.co/Rmm6Ue7NQj
— Dr. Taison Bell (@TaisonBell) April 15, 2021
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.