Communication Studies faculty member Deion Hawkins earns the African American Communication and Culture Division’s (AACCD) Outstanding Dissertation Award. Courtesy Photo
By Molly Loughman
The rise of violent encounters between black Americans and law enforcement is having rippling effects far beyond those directly involved. The routine witnessing of “blue-on-black” violence is causing a myriad of negative health impacts, including increased rates of race-based mortality, chronic stress, and trauma. Despite increased media coverage of police brutality, there is a lack of empirical research on its mental health effects. Helping to change all that is Communication Studies faculty member Deion Hawkins.
“I think we first need to recognize that it’s real and that it’s happening, because I think a lot of times the African-American community will skirt mental health issues or assume they’re the only one feeling this way,” Hawkins said. “I think there needs to be a larger conversation about it. There needs to be culturally competent clinicians who recognize that this is a thing.”
This month, Hawkins’s dissertation, “‘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” (defended at George Mason University), received the National Communication Association’s African American Communication and Culture Division (AACCD) Outstanding Dissertation Award during the NCA’s annual convention in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“To be recognized, not just by the department or by your colleagues, but to be recognized that my work was even read at the national level, let alone awarded, was great – especially because I’m new to the field,” said Hawkins.
Upon entering his doctoral program, Hawkins had done advocacy work outside of academia in relation to HIV among African American populations. However, following the media’s increased attention on fatal and controversial shootings of African Americans by white police officers, beginning in 2014 with the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Hawkins focused his attention and research on health communication within the African American community.
“It kept happening and I started to note that a lot of my friends and family had started to communicate mental health problems with consistently seeing it,” said Hawkins, whose background is in public health communication. “I really wanted to document the mental health impacts of consuming media or hearing stories related to police brutality.”
Hawkins’s Washington D.C.-based research draws on Critical Race Theory (CRT) for a qualitative study that uses phenomenological interviews and case studies from 27 African American men and women (both college graduates and not, ages 18-60) who’ve either experienced, witnessed first-hand, or heard stories of police brutality in order to understand three main things: how the black community gathers information related to brutality; how that information is communicated; and the trauma associated with interpreting such information and conversations.
“For me, the most shocking was the extent of the mental health impact. There were ample things that were eerily similar to [post-traumatic stress disorder], such a clenching up when you hear a siren and the inability to focus at work,” said Hawkins, whose findings indicated a need for more mental health professionals to further study this phenomenon and the affected individuals.
Although many police departments across the nation elect not to disclose official data regarding police brutality, technological advancements, such social media and smartphones, have revolutionized how police brutality information and news is sought and spread.
Often used to gather information in real-time, Twitter was found to have more authentic accounts of police brutality due to skewed information being spread by untrustworthy media outlets, said Hawkins. Another finding revealed that African Americans reported using Facebook Live as emergency outreach in case of a negative encounter, such as getting pulled over, in order to ensure added witnesses.
“If we want to work towards a solution, it needs to be a project that features more than a communication expert. It should have someone on the policy side, a mental health professional – because I think a solution has to deal with those three fields,” Hawkins said.
“I firmly believe this research for me is to help people who are looked over often, or worse, hav[e] their voices silenced or taken advantage of. So, for me, it’s not about publication or the award – it’s about documenting something that people in my community know to be true and proving it with data is important.”
Hawkins currently has two articles in review for publication which expound upon his dissertation. Long-term, he aspires to write a book about the history of policing in order to address the issues surrounding police brutality.