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When Children Are Exposed To Police Violence

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we've already mentioned, last week, a jury in St. Paul, Minn., acquitted the police officer charged in the shooting death of Philando Castile. At the time, Philando Castile's companion, Diamond Reynolds, was able to record the initial aftermath of the killing and livestreamed it on Facebook.

A few days ago, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension released previously unviewed video footage from a police officer's squad car. We're going to play a clip of the video now. And we want to warn you first that what you are about to hear is disturbing. You'll hear Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter in the backseat of a police car. Ms. Reynolds refers to her handcuffs and says she wants them off. The child tells her to keep them on, and she says she's scared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: Damn. So nobody could take these [expletive] off?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No. Please don't. I don't want you to get shooted (ph).

REYNOLDS: Mom - Dede (ph), they not going to shoot me, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm scared.

REYNOLDS: I'm already in handcuffs.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Don't take them off.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk about what Diamond Reynolds' daughter might be going through, and frankly, what other children who've experienced police violence might be going through, might have experienced. Dr. Carl Bell is a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry and public health. He has deep experience both in research about the treatment of children and adults who've been exposed to violence. We reached him in Chicago, Ill. Dr. Bell, Thank you so much for joining us once again.

CARL BELL: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So let me establish first that you've not met Diamond Reynolds' daughter but you've certainly studied this. And you've certainly spoken to children who have witnessed police shootings among many other forms of violence that they've experienced. What can you tell us about what is likely to be happening in the mind of a 4-year-old in this type of situation?

BELL: Well, even though I haven't met the child, there are some commonalities that all children have. When you're that young, at 4-years-old, generally you go into a very primitive fight, flight or freeze reaction because you're a child. You're scared. You're worried about things. And you just saw something horrific happen, and so you try to control yourself, try to help the people around you, hope they help you.

MARTIN: And what's particularly, I think, heartbreaking to a lot of people is that the little girl is obviously afraid herself, I mean, she says so. But she's also trying to comfort her mother. And she also seems to be wanting to protect her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I could take those things.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about that?

BELL: Yes. And in those situations, children frequently are concerned about their sense of helpfulness. That's actually a very strong protective factor in these sorts of traumas. Children are also concerned that they're going to be harmed, so they kind of wax and wane between trying to be helpful and trying to be scared and trying to be appropriately concerned about those around them. So it's a very difficult thing for a child this age.

MARTIN: Often, you know, kids are told that the police are there to protect you and help you, so you might be thinking they're the people who are supposed to help you. And then if they're hurting somebody, is there something particularly confusing about that?

BELL: It's absolutely confusing because African-American people especially are very ambivalent about police. On the one hand, they expect to be served and protected. But on the other hand, they understand that the police are dangerous to them. This is a 4-year-old child who is a very clear example that, in fact, the police are extraordinarily dangerous. And so for this 4-year-old child, it has broken a social contract that we're all supposed to have with the people who are supposed to be serving us.

MARTIN: Obviously, there are much bigger issues here. There's social policy questions that are implicated here. But on a person-to-person level, if you are aware that someone in your life, in your community, in your world has experienced something like this, do you have some guidance to be helpful?

BELL: Absolutely. If it's a young person that's experienced this kind of difficulty, probably the best thing to do is to get them to talk about it and to express it and to relieve all of that internal turmoil. If it's someone a little older, say 5 to 10, then you should talk to them about what they did or what they could have done or what was realistic, what was not.

If they're older, say 10, 15 or older, then you need to have conversations with them about how they as people can reduce their traumatic helplessness and turn that into learned helpfulness. It's not the trauma, it's the helplessness of the trauma. And if you can relieve that helplessness by being helpful, then you turn out to be somewhat resilient and resistant to the damages.

MARTIN: That was Dr. Carl Bell. He is a psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry and public health and has a deep background in studying violence and the effects of violence. Dr. Bell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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