“I Thought I Was Going to Die. All I Could Do Was Turn on My Camera and Pray:” Trauma and Communication Surrounding Police Brutality in the Black Community

Deion Hawkins

Major Professor: Gary L. Kreps, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Timothy A. Gibson, Mark C. Hopson

Research Hall, #161
April 25, 2018, 10:00 AM to 12:30 PM


Unfortunately, encounters between Black Americans and law enforcement frequently feature violence, resulting in a myriad of negative health impacts including increased rates of race-based mortality, chronic stress and trauma. Despite police brutality’s increased media coverage, there is a dearth of empirical research surrounding violence at the hands of law enforcement.

Police departments across the country fail to release official data or information related to police brutality; however, technological advancements, such as social media and smart phones, have revolutionized information seeking and dissemination related to brutality. Drawing on Critical Race Theory (CRT), this qualitative study used phenomenological interviews and case studies to understand 1) how the Black community gathers information related to brutality, (2) how that information is communicated and (3) the trauma associated with interpreting such information and conversations.

 Analysis revealed two main information dissemination channels, family and social media, particularly Twitter. As a direct response to media bias and skewed narratives, the Black community has rejected typical news outlets and now looks to Twitter for information related to police brutality. However, individuals varied on the likelihood or desire to retweet/reshare graphic images; some claimed it was crucial to raise awareness while others argued retweeting images of Black death and pain dehumanizes the Black body. Next, analysis confirmed previous research, revealing the Black community can be traumatized by viewing graphic images or videos of police brutality. Interviewees reported a constant fear of dying, hyper alertness and lack of coping mechanisms. Findings from this study not only should be used to build health communication models that can address mental health issues, but also should be used as a blueprint to improve police-community relations. Implications are drawn from this study for addressing the issue of police violence in the Black community. Policy recommendations are suggested.