Systemic Racism, Policing, and Public Health Advocacy

Illustration of a policing situation

Q&A with Payton Watt and Jamison Koeman

Master’s Students in Health Management and Policy and Epidemiology

When pandemic lockdowns led to cancellations of all in-person events, it included a lot of the public health advocacy work people do around the country to influence policymakers. Without more traditional avenues to advocating for better public health policy, many advocates—including public health students—turned to remote communications.

The Health Policy Student Association (HPSA), one of more than 40 official student organizations at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, creates applied learning spaces for students across campus to engage with health policy and develop cross-disciplinary networks of expertise in acquiring professional, research, and technical advocacy skills.

As HPSA leaders were planning a remote summer advocacy experience for students, racism and policing practices were becoming the national public health story of the summer. We asked Payton Watt and Jamison Koeman, master’s students at Michigan Public Health, about their leadership in the student advocacy process and the ongoing opportunities public health students have to lead advocacy work and improve population health.

Why did you choose racism as a topic public health advocates should be addressing?

Watt. We chose to focus on systemic racism in multiple areas after the Black Lives Matters protests over the summer. It became clear that everyone needs to work on being anti-racist both in their personal and professional lives. Systemic racism is ingrained in much of society, including criminal justice and health care systems. We wanted to use the influence of our organization, the Health Policy Student Association (HPSA), to advocate on these issues and offer a learning opportunity for students. Robert Hsu, a dual MPH/MBA student at the University of Michigan, suggested we conduct summer advocacy work, which we hadn’t done before. We received so much interest—over 40 students—for the project that we had to break into four groups: national criminal justice reform, local criminal justice reform, state health disparities, and systemic racism at the university.

As public health students, we cannot accept the health disparities we see in the evidence and in society.

Koeman. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer, there was a lot of support among students in my department for advocacy on the topic of police reform. We all saw vividly how the actions of police can affect not only a single person’s life but the health and well-being of the Black community as a whole. In the reference materials we created for policymakers, we showed the severe racial disparities of police brutality, where Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has recognized this by declaring racism a public health crisis in August 2020. In addition to racial dimensions, we showed the link between police violence and mental health, demonstrating that a quarter of all people killed by police show signs of mental illness. As public health students, we cannot accept the health disparities we see in the evidence and in society, so we decided to add our voices to advocate for change.

How did you adjust to remote communications for advocacy work?

Watt. It can be difficult to get a large number of participants at Zoom events and meetings. And our project was during the summer months, which made convening even more challenging. We took several actions to encourage participation. We had only a few large group Zoom meetings to discuss advocacy skills and conducted other meetings in smaller groups. We laid out ahead of time what everyone could expect to learn and gain. And we provided clear schedules and frequent reminders. Being virtual did make it easier to schedule meetings and meet with legislators outside of Michigan. The most difficult part was that, in a virtual setting, it is more difficult to feed off one other’s creativity and energy during the brainstorming process.

Koeman. We tried to keep some things the same even in a remote environment. We came to meetings dressed professionally, practiced talking points, sent preparation materials ahead of time, and tried to lead the meetings like we would an in-person setting. While we didn't have the pleasure of meeting legislative staff in person, the remote setting lent itself to advocacy in many ways. Our schedule was more flexible because we didn't need to travel to meet with legislators, so we were able to schedule meetings more quickly and meet with staffers over the course of several weeks. I would encourage more public health students to take advantage of the flexibility of the remote setting to advocate their preferred policies with their representatives.

How is the bill being received and how were your advocacy efforts and your public health expertise received?

Koeman. My group advocated for HR 7136: The Police Training and Accountability Act. The bill did not go anywhere, achieving only six cosponsors by the end of the term. We did get one Michigan legislator—US Representative Dan Kildee—to cosponsor the bill. Our advocacy efforts were largely received with gridlock, which only speaks to the increasing partisanship we see today. While all staffers we spoke to were appreciative of our public health expertise, the staffers were either unsupportive from the start because their priorities did not align with the bill or were reluctant to sign because they knew partisanship was stacked against the bill’s chances. Receiving a new cosponsor did help us see tangible progress.

In many instances, police are called on to address situations that could be handled more effectively by professionals with expertise in the matter at hand.

What kinds of things do you hope to see in future police reform legislation?

Watt. I hope bills are passed that help us hold officers accountable for misconduct, regardless of their race and the race of victims. Many proposed solutions—such as wearing body cams—work only in theory to reduce racism and police brutality. I would like to see a public database of conduct by police officers and have misconduct be handled transparently. Longer term, I hope to see shifts in funding from police to community organizations, ultimately reaching police abolition. In many instances, police are called on to address situations that could be handled more effectively by professionals with expertise in the matter at hand, for example, someone experiencing a severe mental health episode.

Koeman. First, I hope to see more support for reforming the policing system in general. Through a lot of the conversations with staffers, we saw that the issue was not about which changes were needed but about whether change was warranted at all. Second, I hope to see policymakers take positions of humility in the midst of overwhelming public health evidence on this topic. Paying deference to public health and other scientific evidence is essential, because only evidence-informed policy will be able to advance the health of the entire population—which is almost always best for everyone’s health. Finally, I hope police reform legislation truly recognizes the harm the current system does to people of color. A proper system would help everyone thrive without overburdening people of color with violence and differential treatment.

How do you define success in advocacy work, and was this initiative successful?

Watt. Speaking broadly, success in advocacy is raising awareness on an important issue both among the general population and policymakers, and passing evidence-based policy, even if it is on a local level. Unfortunately, it takes an incredibly long time to shape policy. But when more people are aware of the issue at hand, it gains momentum. This is especially true when the issue is repeatedly brought up.

In this context, another layer of success was specific to students. Participants in this summer advocacy work were from many programs with the School of Public Health as well as from the university’s Ford School of Public Policy, Ross School of Business, and Medical School. The topic, at least in its public health framing, was new to many of the participants, but everyone did a fabulous job researching the topic, creating reference materials for policymakers, and contacting legislators. We learned a lot and immediately applied those skills—a big success.

Koeman. My team learned that achieving policy change through advocacy takes a lot of work. It took us several months of work to achieve one cosponsor on the bill, and we met a lot of opposition along the way. Real policy change requires building the right relationships with real decision-makers and attentiveness to the conditions in which a given policy could pass into law. These things take time and knowledge of the process. But I wouldn’t define success as achieving the policy change we hoped to see. We saw success as students because we moved the bill one inch forward and learned a lot along the way. In the end, we all agreed there were things we could have done better, including picking a different bill and approaching both senators and house representatives. We were all grateful for this opportunity to improve our advocacy skills and support policy changes that are essential to improved public health.

About the Authors

Payton Watt is a master’s student in Epidemiology and Health Management and Policy. She is a Gelman Global Scholar, a Fedor and Mechthild Medzihradsky Global Intern, and an Udow-Phillips Scholar in Public Health.

Jamison Koeman is a master’s student in Health Management and Policy and an Udow-Phillips Scholar in Public Health.

Read More Stories from the Spring 2021 Issue of Findings