LA County Public Health's Ferrer: "Addressing Law Enforcement Violence Is a Public Health Issue"

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

It was hardly unexpected, but disappointing nonetheless. When Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer, Ph.D., had her turn at the microphone at the county’s coronavirus briefing Monday, she had a lot to say about the connection between events in Los Angeles County and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The underlying theme of her remarks was the same theme that underlies her “academic” work (i.e., America is racist and racism causes everything), her conclusion was vague and seemingly a veiled threat against Los Angeles law enforcement officers.

When Board of Supervisors Chair Kathryn Barger turned the time over to Ferrer, she wasted no time. She began:

I do want to say a few words about events since the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. This is, of course, a briefing about COVID-19, but the events in Minneapolis and the response to those events are overwhelming, and I think it’s important to comment on the connection between these two concerns: the death of a black man at the hands of police and the experience of COVID-19 in LA County.

Oh, boy. It’s pretty universally agreed that the four Minneapolis officers who were involved in Floyd’s death (especially Derek Chauvin) behaved criminally and should be charged with some form of murder (depending upon their involvement and actions). There is no political divide on this. For a woman who is one of the top leaders in a county that’s been pummeled by violence and looting over the past five days (and which is still extremely close to mob rule at this moment) to use those words, “murder of George Floyd by police officers,” is extremely irresponsible.

I mean, the people at MSNBC and CNN have told us that words matter, right?

Ferrer then extended her condolences to Floyd’s family and friends before getting back to her point (emphasis added):

I would also like to take a minute to try to connect this brutal event to what we see in LA County dealing with COVID-19. We know that black Americans fare worse than other groups on virtually every measure of health status, and it has become all too common to blame this on individual behaviors when in fact the science is clear. The root cause of health inequities is racism and discrimination and how it limits access to the very opportunities and access each of us need for optimal health and well-being. Science also tells us that lifetime stress associated with experiences of daily acts of discrimination and oppression play a major role.

When I report each week that we have seen elevated numbers of black deaths in this county due to COVID-19 I am reporting on the consequences of these long-standing inequities.

Again, the nation agrees that the death of George Floyd was horrific, detestable, and criminal. For the most part (at least in my experience, professionally and personally), Americans believe that racism is still a problem to some degree and that non-white Americans are more at-risk in encounters with law enforcement officers. But the thought that racism is the root cause of health inequities is ludicrous.

Barbara Ferrer, Ph.D., would surely dispute my non-scientific opinion because it’s not backed up by any studies that I can find on a cursory search (surprise, surprise, knowing the public health field), but I submit that poverty is a larger determinant of access to the things we need for our optimal health and well-being. I’ll cite my experience living in the rural south for nearly 20 years and working in the ministry of our church and in the criminal justice system as my source, which is surely as scientific as some of the things that come from Dr. Ferrer’s mouth. In our area, it didn’t matter whether the people were white, black, Latino, Asian, or Native American; the more poverty-stricken a neighborhood was, the higher the incidence of alcoholism, obesity, drug abuse, asthma, dental problems, malnutrition, you name it.

In addition, Ferrer’s got a lot of nerve standing up there blaming inequity in “the experience of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County” on racism when her own ineptitude has led to an extremely delayed response to quashing outbreaks in nursing homes in Los Angeles County – and nursing homes that take Medicare or are in low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected. Why? Because nursing homes in more affluent neighborhoods have more resources to test staff and residents, ensure they have adequate PPE, and have more space to quarantine symptomatic patients and enforce social distancing.

But, do go on and blame racism to try to save your bacon.

Ferrer then gets to the crux of the message she wants to send:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it eloquently in an op-ed in the LA Times when he said the black community has to ask itself if being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.

The op-ed piece called for a rush to justice as the answer to events like this. As the department responsible for public health in LA County, and in acknowledgement of our national association, the American Public Health Association declaring that addressing law enforcement violence is a public health issue, this rush to justice has to be part of our prescription as well.

What does that mean? Addressing law enforcement violence is a public health issue? Will Ferrer attempt to issue public health orders purporting to place limits and guidelines on how law enforcement officers can interact with the public?

Ferrer has already shown that she’s unconcerned with the health of LAPD and LA Sheriff’s Department employees by failing to deal with conditions causing typhus, meningitis, and hepatitis outbreaks in the county, especially in downtown Los Angeles. She’s also actively resisted having the public health department pay for vaccinations for police officers and only backed down when the LAPD officers union raised a stink. Is Ferrer’s comment about a “rush to justice” being “part of our prescription” to address the public health issue of “law enforcement violence” foreshadowing some action she’s going to attempt or a threat aimed at LAPD Chief Moore and LA Sheriff Villanueva? Time will tell.