The sudden death of Atatiana Jefferson’s father on Saturday was likely directly related to the police killing his daughter weeks earlier, according to research about the health consequences of police violence.
The technical cause of death for Marquis Jefferson was a heart attack. But there are good odds that the 59-year-old’s death was due in part to the residual trauma and elevated levels of stress he undoubtedly suffered upon learning that a Fort Worth police officer killed his daughter by shooting her through her bedroom window within seconds of seeing her in her own home. The 28-year-old died in front of her 8-year-old nephew.
It is precisely that type of police violence that’s been credited with contributing to the declining health and even deaths of family members of people killed by such brutality. According to the National Institutes of Health, there is a direct correlation between people affected by police brutality and the deterioration of their health that “can lead to conditions such as diabetes, stroke, ulcers, cognitive impairment, autoimmune disorders, accelerated aging, and death.”
Jefferson’s family lawyer, S. Lee Merritt, expressed a similar sentiment in a tweet Sunday morning when he said there was no question that Atatiana’s killing factored into her father’s death. “Police brutality impacts victims, families, & entire communities alike,” Merritt tweeted. “The anger & heartbreak felt around the country since the murder of Atatiana is still palatable.”
We saw that truth unfold when Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica, died from a heart attack at the age of 27 in 2017. Her death came just more than two years after the NYPD was recorded on video using an illegal chokehold to kill her father. It was also this past summer when Eric Garner’s stepfather, Ben Carr, also died of a heart attack. Is it a coincidence that Jefferson, Garner and Carr all died from heart attacks in the aftermaths of widely publicized instances of police violence? Seems doubtful.
“In the wake of the deaths of Black people at the hands of the state – from the police to the prison system – the living are often weighted with a sadness that is too heavy to bear, and in the weeks and months following the initial death of a loved one, they become sick and many die prematurely,” Christen A. Smith, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote last year.
“I’m struggling right now, with the stress and everything,” she said at the time. “Because this thing, it beats you down…My father he died, he died on national TV. I had to see him die on national TV. A lot of people don’t get to see their parents die…I felt the same pain that my father felt on that day that he was screaming ‘I can’t breathe.’ When he was saying that he was tired of being harassed, tired of being arrested, his money being stole from him [by the police].”
In a related incident, the mother of Kalief Browder, the man who killed himself after being falsely imprisoned on Rikers Island for three years, died from a heart attack in 2016. The New York Daily News reported at the time that Venida Browder “died of a broken heart.”
Scientists agree that stress by itself can be a killer. In particular, stress can have an adverse reaction on the cardiovascular system, which includes the heart. That fact lent more credence to the prospects of Marquis Jefferson’s death being brought on in part from the stress associated with losing his daughter to police violence.
Stress caused by police violence can also exacerbate health problems that can lead to death. Researchers have said that police violence should be declared as a public health issue, especially when it comes to Black people, who are seemingly the disproportionate recipients of said brutality.