Walter Wallace Jr.

How viral police shooting videos can mess with your mental health

If watching feels necessary or inevitable, there are methods to cope.

Community leaders and members of the clergy led a march Tuesday from the site where Walter Wallace Jr. was killed to the police precinct at 55th and Pine

Community leaders and members of the clergy led a march Tuesday from the site where Walter Wallace Jr. was killed to the police precinct at 55th and Pine

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Walter Wallace Jr.’s mother tried at first to use her body as a shield, screaming and standing between her son and two Philly police officers yelling from behind the barrels of their guns, a social media video of the West Philadelphia scene shows. It also shows that the officers shot Wallace while he was standing several feet away from them, with his mom close behind.

The graphic video, like others before it, has gone viral.

Wallace was killed in the city’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood on Monday afternoon. Before that day at about 4 p.m., he was a newlywed, having just been married on Oct. 2, as well as a father, brother and son. After that date and time, Wallace became a hashtag, and the new conduit for pushback against police violence in the United States.

“People who are beloved members of a community are turned into a recording,” said Krystal Strong, an organizer with BLM Philly, discussing viral police shooting videos. “This is my introduction to him. There’s something fundamentally dehumanizing to that.”

The uncensored depiction of Wallace’s death is causing Philadelphians to once again reconsider whether such media should be circulated at all.

Research shows that viewing violent news events can be traumatic for some.

That does not stop people from looking. The Wallace killing has been viewed more than 1 million times on civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump’s account alone. On that and other Twitter posts, the video autoplays when it shows up in the timeline.

Dr. Howard Stevenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in the ways racial trauma and stress affect life from childhood up, knows the impact violent news media consumption can have. He knows it through study, and from personal experience. As the parent of Black children, Stevenson said it was the reaction from Wallace’s mother that struck him hardest.

“I felt traumatized because it’s a recurring nightmare for those of us who are parents of color, who have children or Black male sons,” Stevenson said. “To watch another parent go through that, I felt helpless.”

While these videos can present information not otherwise available to a wide audience, the time may have passed for their usefulness, said Deandra Jefferson, an organizer with the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial Economic and Legal Justice (Philly for REAL Justice).

“I think it was useful to a point, and now if you don’t believe this is happening, I don’t know what to tell you,” Jefferson said.

Watching police kill people can damage physical health

When police shooting videos go viral, people may end up viewing them repeatedly whether they want to or not — including the victim’s family members.

“I would not want my loved ones, if I was murdered by cops, to have to constantly relive that murder,” said Philly for REAL Justice’s Jefferson, who lives in North Philadelphia.

Watching police shoot someone who looks like you and perceiving that the person was killed unnecessarily can inspire a fight-or-flight stress response, according to Penn prof Stevenson.

That affects your physical health, Stevenson said, because your body produces cortisol, a stress hormone usually only released in short bursts. Viewing such videos over and over without the proper coping techniques can lead to chemical imbalances: “That’s not supposed to happen, biochemically.”

This effect has been studied deeply with regard to the 9/11 attacks.

Dr. Pam Ramsden, a researcher from Colorado teaching at University of Bradford in the UK, began studying whether viewing violent news events could trigger what’s called vicarious post traumatic stress disorder after graphic images of World Trade Center victims were quickly censored by news media.

In her 2015 report, Ramsden found nearly a quarter of people who viewed violent news events — including civilians being killed by police — were “profoundly” affected. Of that group, about 1% will go on to have clinical PTSD.

“It is a small number,” Ramsden told Billy Penn, “But it’s still relatively significant, because in the past, we believed that people couldn’t be affected by something that they were just watching.”

With trauma inevitable, Black and Brown people can try to manage stress

Both researchers agree viewing these videos is more likely to trigger severe responses among Black and Brown Americans.

“Part of the idea is that you feel like your residence or physical space is threatening, or where unpredictable racism could harm you,” said Stevenson, of UPenn. “You already know there’s racism in the air. It’s the idea that your own humanity could be questioned at any time and could lead to assault or violence.”

That’s one reason BLM Philly organizer Strong chooses not to view or share images of state violence anymore, but said she and other activists grapple with the question.

Strong said she doesn’t need to watch the videos to believe that police abuse Black people. Most Black people, she said, probably don’t. But at the protests in West Philadelphia after Wallace was killed, Strong said, it was evident the powerful video imagery was galvanizing.

“People kept talking about what they witnessed,” she said, “narrating the video.”

Trauma is inevitable for Black people and people of color in America, Stevenson said. So it’s helpful to learn to cope. The decorated urban psychologist teaches a strategy called CLCBE — an acronym for calculate, locate, communicate, breathe and exhale — to manage stress associated with racial trauma and racist imagery.

The tactic calls on users to calculate what they’re feeling, how many feelings they have and the intensity of those feelings, and then locate where in the body those feelings have manifested.

Are your shoulders tense? Face scrunched? Leg tapping? Next, communicate by assessing any self-talk or memories triggered by viewing violent news media. Finally, breathe in for four seconds and exhale for six to regain a sense of calm.

Viral videos may still be useful to get the facts out, BLM Philly’s Strong acknowledged, but she emphasized the need for social media controls on autoplay, and warnings on sensitive media, such as those employed by Instagram.

Ultimately, said Strong, “There’s a reason why people livestream themselves when they have police encounters.”

Want some more? Explore other Walter Wallace Jr. stories.

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