As violent crime has surged in New Orleans over the past several years – leading all other major U.S. cities in homicides per capita last year – current and former city leaders have pushed for a greater emphasis on “proactive policing.”

This kind of policing takes a preventive approach to crime that often includes increased patrols in high-crime areas, surveillance and frequent stops-and-searches. New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Michelle Woodfork listed a return to proactive policing among the goals in her February crime-fighting plan. Her predecessor, Shaun Ferguson, also backed such a strategy, despite at one point disbanding the agency’s proactive, district-based task forces in 2020 over a troubling report on questionable stops and unsafe practices by officers. And former chief Ronal Serpas has urged the city to reorganize the department to prioritize policing aimed at preventing crime.

Some studies have shown various proactive policing strategies reduce crime mostly in the short term, though critics have argued such practices are marred by racial bias. A growing body of research has also focused more broadly on the negative health impacts of such tactics for people who come in contact with police, especially in Black communities.

But a new study raises questions about the negative impacts proactive policing in New Orleans may have on the health of Black mothers and their infants, suggesting the strategy may contribute to racial inequities in reproductive health.

The paper, published earlier this year in the American Journal of Public Health, found that Black residents in New Orleans neighborhoods with the highest levels of proactive policing — measured by the rate of police stops and searches of residents — were about three times more likely to give birth preterm, or before 37 weeks, than white residents. Black people who gave birth during the study period also disproportionately lived in neighborhoods where more proactive policing was taking place, researchers found. 

The study’s authors, led by Jacqueline Jahn, an epidemiologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, say their findings are significant in the midst of a Black maternal health crisis, and in a moment where cities are assessing the roles of their police forces in responding to racial justice movements. 

“What’s the broader community impact of that to people who have never even encountered the police but live in a place where this is happening?” Maeve Wallace, one of the study’s authors, and an epidemiologist at Tulane University, told Verite. “We’re trying to take a public health lens to this kind of thing and then see how it is contributing to these really long-standing and entrenched racial inequities that we see.”

The researchers examined birth records in the city from 2018 and 2019, along with census tract data and field interview data from the NOPD over the same time period. NOPD is required to compile that information and to issue a report on at least an annual basis, due to the federal consent decree the department has been under since 2013.

The NOPD stop-and-search data does reveal some of the study’s limitations. Though such data is rarely made accessible to the public, the information available to researchers doesn’t delve into detail on what happened during the stops or identify specific individuals who may have been stopped by police before or after giving birth. It also doesn’t account for stops that may have gone unreported, or those made by other police forces, such as state troopers.

The study focused on police stops classified by NOPD as due to a “suspicious person” or a “suspicious vehicle” — stops essentially made at the discretion of an officer and legally justified by the mere suspicion that a subject may be engaged in criminal activity, rather than actual evidence, which is required for an arrest. Researchers also adjusted their models for factors including unemployment, poverty and Medicaid status to control for other drivers of adverse birth outcomes and proactive policing

Black New Orleanians who gave birth also disproportionately live in neighborhoods with greater rates of proactive policing than white residents. Neighborhoods with greater proportions of Black residents, such as Central City and portions of the West Bank, saw the highest rate of police stops, though the study didn’t find such an association among white residents.

During the time period of the study, more than 9,000 babies were born in New Orleans, about 13% of which were preterm — higher than the national average of about 10%. Researchers found a large racial gap in such births, with Black people about twice as likely to give birth preterm than white people. Those local statistics track with statewide trends; Louisiana is often ranked among the worst in the nation for indicators of maternal and infant health, with high rates of infant and maternal mortality, and racial disparities abound in those outcomes.

Prematurity is a leading cause of death among newborns and can lead to long-term disabilities. Medical experts aren’t entirely certain of the causes of preterm births, though everyday life risk factors include low socioeconomic status, long working hours and stress during pregnancy.

Jahn, the study’s lead author, said a growing body of research indicates that high levels of proactive policing can serve as a chronic stressor, especially in Black neighborhoods that tend to be more heavily policed. “We know that chronic stress doesn’t land equally across populations, and Black and other people of color are disproportionately affected,” Jahn said.

The research demonstrates how criminal justice policy and reproductive health policy are interlinked, said Alexander Testa, an assistant professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, pointing to the study’s findings.

“The criminal justice system can be an apparatus to enhance public health and an apparatus to enhance reproductive health,” Testa said. “What research currently shows is, it’s probably not working in that direction.”

Local policymakers need to consider the ”social costs” of policing, as documented in studies such as this one, which show clearly where proactive policing is taking place across the city’s districts, said Sarah Omojola, associate director of the New Orleans office at the Vera Institute for Justice. Such “social costs” can include impacts on the health and education on people interacting with police, and their surrounding communities.

“When we think about changes to policing or think about policies that people are imposing, we really have to look at these social costs in addition to police violence and abuses of power,” Omojola said.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office and the New Orleans Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. 

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...