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Racial Slurs by Police and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms: Intrusive Policing and Perceived Injustice

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Using the Future of Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 785), this article considers the ramifications of police use of racial slurs, a type of intrusive behavior, toward minority youth for posttraumatic stress (PTS). We also examine whether other intrusive police behaviors exacerbate this relationship and test whether perceptions of injustice mediate it. Results indicated that hearing a police officer use a racial slur was positively associated with PTS after controlling for intrusive police behaviors and other covariates. Intrusive policing tended to co-occur with the use of racial slurs and was positively associated with PTS. The association between hearing a racial slur and PTS did not vary by the number of intrusive behaviors exhibited by police. The association between hearing a slur and PTS was partially mediated by perceived procedural injustice. Overall, the use of racial slurs by police may do harm to minority adolescents by putting them at risk for posttraumatic stress disorder. Our results are consistent with prior research that racial slurs may contribute to PTS by eroding the bounds of what is considered just and fair. Interestingly, the association between racial slurs and PTS was independent of other intrusive policing behaviors. Mental health screeners should ask not only about being stopped by police but the characteristics of that encounter as well — including those imbued with racial animus.

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Data Availability

The data used in this study is publicly available and can be found on the Future of Families and Child Wellbeing Study website at


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Research reported in this publication was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) of the National Institutes of Health under award numbers R01HD036916, R01HD039135, and R01HD040421, as well as a consortium of private foundations. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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Correspondence to Michael J. McFarland.

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McFarland, M.J., McFarland, C.A.S., Moniz, K. et al. Racial Slurs by Police and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms: Intrusive Policing and Perceived Injustice. J Urban Health 100, 904–913 (2023).

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