Family Members and Friends of Victims
The impact of police-involved deaths disproportionately falls on historically marginalized and disenfranchised individuals and communities - including African, Caribbean and Black (ACB), Indigenous and Racialized communities, those with precarious housing, people with mental health issues, substance abuse challenges , migrants, youth, sex workers, and members of the LGBTQ2S community. Individuals from these communities are disproportionately the targets of police surveillance, use of force, detentions, searches, criminal charges and incarceration that often result in their deaths.
Despite alarming trends, current understanding of the impact of police-involved deaths on the family members and close friends left behind struggling to survive the violent tragic death of their loved ones is limited.
Who Are the Family & Friends?
Family members and friends of individuals who die in police encounters are survivors. Although their emotional, physical and spiritual wounds are often obscured from view, they require support to cope with the death of their loved one(s).
They are family members and friends struggling to cope and survive the devestation of police-involved deaths.
How Are Survivors Impacted?
Due to the traumatic impact of police-involved deaths, survivors experience compromised psychological, physical, and emotional wellbeing. The disproportionate reality of experiencing police-involved deaths for over-policed communities, including African, Caribbean and Black, Indigenous and Racialized communities, those with precarious housing, people with mental health issues, people who use drugs, sex workers, migrants, youth, members of the LGBTQ2S community, places them at a great risk for psychosocial distress.
The reactions to experiencing the violent death of a loved one can often include flashbacks, self-blame, isolation, withdrawal as well as an increased risk for developing complicated grief. Survivors can also become hypervigilant, exhibit increased stress and anxiety, which can lead to adverse health complications (diabetes, stroke, or ulcers).
Moreover, survivors must learn to cope with the chronic deaths of their family, friends and community members within sociocultural contexts rife with racism, homophobia and intersecting inequalities, exposing them to further harm.
The impact of police-involved deaths on surviving family members and friends not only compromises their physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing, but leaves in its wake feelings of institutional betrayal, injustice and disappointment in systems that have vowed to protect and serve them.
Experiencing the violent death of a loved one leaves survivors with "invisible wounds" often presenting in the form of prolonged grief and traumatic stress.
These wounds place survivors at increased risk for adverse mental health outcomes (e.g. depression, traumatic stress disorder).
When there is a police-involved death, surviving family members of the victims often find themselves entangled in a complex labrynth of criminal justice, mental and physical health care systems.
It is imperative that these services respond to the needs of survivors in a culturally responsive manner.
Ensuring Survivors are Supported
The impact of police-involved death on survivors must be understood within a broad social context. Over-policed communities often experience racism, discrimination and oppression in many different facets of daily life, forcing individuals to create their own networks of family and social support. For many communities, individual relationships extend far beyond blood ties suggesting that the number of family members and friends who are impacted is far greater than research predicts. Moreover, when we consider the history of colonialism, enslavement, and the frequency in which homicide occurs in African, Caribbean and Black, Indigenous and Racialized communities, you begin to understand that we are dealing with a disproportionate number of people who are forever traumatically transformed.
Voice of survivors of police-involved deaths
These quotes come from Indigenous, African Caribbean and Black and racialized survivors of police-involved deaths and homicide victims during interviews as part of the Invisible Wounds and Survivors of Homicide Victims and Mental Health projects led by The CRIB. Out of privacy and respect for the survivors, the quotes were voiced by members of The CRIB research team. Their experiences are particularly relevant for the survivors of police violence, because both groups of survivors are caught in the aftermath of the traumatic death of friends and families.
“It definitely made me cry, and feel sad. And, over and over, I just remember telling myself just that it wasn’t fair. Like the people who are supposed to be protecting us, killed my friend?”
“Just like that, you know? And it happened around the corner from me. So it... It was just hard to digest that it was even real. That it was happening. Because I'd never been exposed, at the time, to anybody that had been killed by the police.”
“Accountability. And then not even showing up to the funeral to escort us to the grave site... Just things like that. It's like, they [the police] did the deed and were not sorry. It kind of... It happens, when you're working this type of the job, when you live in these type of spaces.”
“A lot of the time, we individualize. We blame people for the positions that they're in. Like him. They would have blamed... Well, I'm pretty sure they did. At the time, they did. They said he was known to police. That's what they love to say, so it justifies their actions going forward.”
Voices of survivors of homicide victims
“It’s not like he dies of natural causes or from old age…It’s traumatic forever.”
“I felt like I should have been able to hold him, but I couldn't. And then I started asking God, what happened?”
“I felt so weak, he was my closest friend... And humiliated, because of the brutality of his death.”
“It took some time, about two days... I didn't believe it until I started feeling lonely, then I knew I couldn't see him anymore.”
“When they told me that was it, he was dead, I cried. I held onto him and cried. And the worst part was, where my face was on his shoulder, I was leaned into him, and we were up against a wall. There was a mirror there, so I literally had to watch myself cry.”