Police

Police officers speak less respectfully to black drivers, study suggests

Police officers are less respectful to black drivers than they are to white drivers, researchers studying police in Oakland, California, found after analyzing body camera footage from hundreds of police stops.

Over the past few years, videos of police officers across the country shooting black Americans have ignited high-profile protests and debates over how officers interact with their communities. But the Oakland study, published Monday in the National Academy of Sciences’ official journal and thought to be the first to examine body camera footage, used video to delve into police officers’ more mundane moments: the way they speak to the people they’re meant to protect and serve during traffic stops.

“Routine traffic stops are not only common, they are consequential, each an opportunity to build or erode public trust in the police,” the study’s researchers, who were led by a Stanford University linguistics doctoral student, wrote. “Indeed, some have argued that racial disparities in perceived treatment during routine encounters help fuel the mistrust of police in the controversial officer-involved shootings that have received such great attention.”

Researchers analyzed hundreds of police stops of black and white drivers from the month of April 2014, breaking down each into a series of “utterances” — like “my man,” or “drive safe” — that volunteers rated for respectfulness, politeness, friendliness, formality, and impartiality. (The volunteers didn’t know the races of the officers and drivers involved in each stop.)

Here’s what researchers found:

  • White people are nearly 60 percent more likely to hear more respectful utterances — like an apology for getting stopped, or addressing someone as “ma’am” — while black people are more than 60 percent likely to hear less respectful utterances, such as, “Do me a favor,” or, “Keep your hands on the steering wheel.”
  • It’s unlikely that the drivers themselves provoked the officers into acting more disrespectfully, as officers tend to speak less respectfully to black drivers even within the first few minutes of a stop, or “even before the driver has had the opportunity to say much at all,” the researchers found.
  • The severity of the offense that led the driver to get pulled over in the first place — for example, whether the driver was speeding, or just driving with a broken taillight — also didn’t really impact officers’ level of respect.
  • Overall, officers tended to become more respectful and less formal as a stop went on. Still, respect grew faster when officers spoke to white people.
  • “Regardless of cause,” the researchers conclude, “we have found that police officers’ interactions with blacks tend to be more fraught, not only in terms of disproportionate outcomes (as previous work has shown) but also interpersonally, even when no arrest is made and no use of force occurs.”
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