Exposure to Videos of Police Brutality Against Black Americans and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms Among U.S. Adults

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology

First Advisor

Beverly J. Vandiver, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Samuel T. Beasley, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Whitney DeCamp, Ph.D.


Ethnocultural empathy, police brutality, posttraumatic stress, race, trauma


The purpose of this study was to examine in a diverse sample of U.S. adults the relationship between exposure to videos of police brutality against Black Americans and posttraumatic stress symptoms. Exposure to videos of police brutality against Black Americans is believed to have emotional and psychological effects on the viewer and may be considered an indirect (i.e., vicarious) form of exposure to trauma (Alang et al., 2017; Bor et al., 2018; Bryant-Davis et al., 2017). Prior research has established a positive association between experiences of racial discrimination and trauma symptoms (Kirkins et al., 2018). Previous research on psychological reactions to videos of police brutality against Black Americans has not considered the possible influence of ethnocultural empathy. This issue is important to consider because empathetic engagement may contribute to differential reactions to police brutality across racial/ethnic groups. The primary variables under investigation in this study were race, exposure to videos of police brutality against Black Americans, experiences of racial discrimination, ethnocultural empathy, and PTSD symptom severity. Data were obtained from 426 U.S. adults, an approximately equal number of Black, White, Asian, and Latino/a, via an online research panel.

The first hypothesis was that Black respondents would report higher mean frequency scores for exposure to both (a) general videos of police brutality, and (b) videos of fatal instances of police brutality compared to the other racial/ethnic groups. Prior research and preliminary analyses resulted in the use of several covariates (age, stress, mental health treatment, racial discrimination, and prior experience with police) to adjust for some differences among the participants. ANCOVA was conducted on each exposure variable by the four categories of race. Hypothesis 1 was partially supported. Black adults in this study reported viewing videos of police brutality more often compared to Asian and White adults, with no difference between Latino/a and Black adults. For the second hypothesis, ethnocultural empathy was expected to vary the relationship between frequency of exposure to videos of police brutality and PTSD symptom severity such that as ethnocultural empathy increased, the relationship between exposure and symptom severity would also increase. A moderated regression was run with the interaction between exposure to videos of police brutality and ethnocultural empathy on PTSD symptom severity. Hypothesis two was not supported as no interaction effect was found. The third hypothesis was that the relationship between exposure to videos of police brutality against Black Americans and PTSD symptoms would be moderated by race. The hypothesis was not supported and there was no interaction effect of race and frequency of exposure on PTSD symptom severity. However, main effects, not hypothesized for race on (a) perceived discrimination and (b) PTSD symptom severity were found, with Black adults on both variables reporting higher levels of discrimination and symptom severity compared to Asian or White American adults. Implications for practice are reviewed and directions of future research. Clinicians must be attuned to the potential impact of cumulative stressors that individuals may experience due to racial discrimination and consider how collectively experienced events via the media (e.g., police killings of Black Americans) may exacerbate stress responses.

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