Proactive policing begins harming Black people before they are even born

High rates of police stops in a New Orleans neighborhood resulted in increased risk of preterm birth among Black mothers
Proactive policing begins harming Black people before they are even born
Photo: Jeenah Moon (Reuters)
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Proactive policing in the US, the kind of policing activity intended to prevent crime at officers’ discretion rather than respond to reports of problems, overwhelmingly happens as a function of racial profiling.

Data points abound. Police officers consistently stop and search Black and Hispanic drivers with greater frequency than white ones (up to 42% more, according to a large 2020 analysis), despite the fact that searches of white drivers are more likely to identify contraband material. Police stops led to hundreds of killings of unarmed people in the past few years, a disproportionate number of them Black.

But even before Black people directly lose their lives to police brutality following police stops—Tyre Nichols, Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, and dozens of others—the stress caused by the mere presence of proactive policing in a neighbor can pose a threat to Black lives.

A study conducted in New Orleans and published on Jan. 25 in the American Journal of Public Health shows high rates of proactive policing in a neighborhood are linked with increased occurrence of preterm birth.

Proactive policing is linked to preterm birth in Black infants

The study, led by Jaqueline Jahn, an epidemiologist at Drexel University, linked birth records in New Orleans for 2018 and 2019 with census track data on proactive police stops. One in five of the Black people giving birth lived in the neighborhoods with highest rates of proactive policing, compared to only 8% of the white ones.

The researchers analyzed the prevalence of preterm births in relation to police stop rates, finding preterm birth rates 1.41 times higher for Black people living in areas with high proactive policing compared to Black people living in areas with low policing. However, the same comparison conducted among white people didn’t show statistically relevant differences.

This is consistent with previous findings on the topic, suggesting that merely living in a highly policed neighborhood isn’t what generates stress. It’s living in such neighborhood as a Black person who fears being a target of racial profiling by the police, or that their children or family might be, that causes unhealthy stress.

Racist stressors and preterm births

Preterm birth is one of the most common causes of infant mortality, and it occurs much more frequently in the US than it does in comparable countries such as Canada and the UK, or in western Europe.

The rates of preterm births are especially concerning among American Black babies, who are born preterm at a rate 1.5 times higher than white babies. In New Orleans, the difference is even more striking: Black infants are born prematurely twice as frequently as white ones.

The causes of preterm births are varied, and not all well understood. Yet one of the documented factors of shorter gestation periods is maternal stress. In this case, racism, as channeled by proactive policing, is an important source of stress: Previous research found that pregnant Black women suffer higher rates of gestational depression and other mental health stresses even simply by anticipating the dangerous outcomes of potential police stops involving their children or families.

High crime rates, too, have been associated with preterm birth, as well as hypertensive disease in pregnancy, which in turn is a condition associated with chronic stress. However, recent studies have found that, unlike proactive policing, the increased risk of preterm labor among those living in neighborhoods with high crime rates affects white and Black women similarly.

Racist patterns of policing have been documented in New Orleans, and proactive stops are most frequent in neighborhoods with larger proportions of Black residents. Since white pregnant residents of the same neighborhoods didn’t experience equally increased rates of preterm birth, the policing contributed to further exacerbating the Black-white birth gap: Black infants were three times more likely to be born prematurely than white ones in highly policed, largely Black, neighborhoods.

These findings suggest that the policing itself, while not a direct cause of preterm birth, generates a chronic contextual stressor specifically for Black people. But although the authors found a connection, further studies are necessary to understand the mechanism by which the stress of policing affects childbirth, as well as whether there are specific implications not only to being subject to the stress while pregnant, but before as well.