‘Keep Your Hands on the Wheel, My Man’

Stanford body cam study shows cop language differs by race of driver in stops.


Police officers treat Black motorists with less respect during traffic stops than white ones, new research from Stanford University confirmed. Seemingly subtle differences in language in fact highlight significant racial disparities.

According to the study, titled “Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect,” these results were consistent despite the officers’ race, the reason the motorist was pulled over, where the stop took place and how the stop ended.

Previous surveys have indicated this widespread belief, and video footage of police encounters with Blacks has become more widespread over the last few years. But the Stanford study was unique — and telling — because it did not rely on witness recollection. Rather, a team from Stanford’s psychology, linguistics and computer science departments analyzed 183 hours’ worth of body camera footage from Oakland, Calif., police officers. The footage showed 981 stops made by 245 different officers in April 2014.

Analysts concluded that whites were 57 percent more likely to hear a word or phrase considered respectful, while Blacks were 61 percent more likely to hear one considered disrespectful.

The study only analyzed one police department. But Jennifer Eberhardt, one of the study’s co-authors and a psychology professor, believes the results would be similar everywhere.

“We’d like to look at these issues in other agencies, but our suspicion is that there would be similar results in other places,” Eberhardt said, according to the New York Times.

“To be clear: There was no swearing,” said Dan Jurafsky, a study co-author and Stanford professor of linguistics and of computer science. “These were well-behaved officers. But the many small differences in how they spoke with community members added up to pervasive racial disparities.”

In the three-pronged study, researchers asked human participants to rate a small sample of utterances made by officers during traffic stops — not knowing the race or gender of the motorist — based on respectfulness, politeness, friendliness, formality and impartiality. Analysts then used the human participant ratings to create statistical models to rate 36,738 unique utterances from officers. Finally, the team applied the models generated from the second study to all of the transcripts.

Whites were more likely to hear words and phrases associated with respect, while Blacks were more likely to hear words and phrases associated with disrespect. For instance, officers were much more likely to use informal titles (such as “my man”) when speaking with Black drivers — one of the three phrases ranked as the most disrespectful. They were also more likely to hear “Hands on the wheel,” considered the most disrespectful phrase.

In contrast, white motorists were much more likely to hear an utterance pertaining to “safety,” one of the top 10 most respectful types of speech listed. Officers were also more likely to apologize to whites during a stop, the speech considered the most respectful.

The study did not find significant differences in the officers’ formality when speaking with white versus Black drivers.

However, differences were significant when it came to respect. For both races, levels of respect start on the lower side (notably, they begin lower for Blacks) and then increase as time goes on. But for encounters with Black motorists, it took longer for respect levels to increase — and they never reach the same levels as with white drivers.

‘Keep Your Hands on the Wheel, My Man’


One question to consider is how the officer was treated by the motorist and if this changed the way in which the officer treated him or her. But the authors note that the levels of disrespect were evident almost immediately:

“It is certainly possible that some of these disparities are prompted by the language and behavior of the community members themselves, particularly as historical tensions in Oakland and preexisting beliefs about the legitimacy of the police may induce fear, anger, or stereotype threat. However, community member speech cannot be the sole cause of these disparities. Study 1 found racial disparities in police language even when annotators judged that language in the context of the community member’s utterances. We observe racial disparities in officer respect even in police utterances from the initial 5% of an interaction, suggesting that officers speak differently to community members of different races even before the driver has had the opportunity to say much at all.”

Studies have shown that Blacks tend to have less confidence in police and are less likely to believe they use appropriate amounts of force. Three quarters of whites believe police treat people of all racial and ethnic groups equally, compared to just 35 percent of Blacks, a 2016 Pew Research Center analysis found.

But interestingly, a 2016 Gallup poll found that respect for police is on the rise. Seventy-six Americans reported having a great deal of respect for police — an increase of 12 percentage points from 2015. When broken down by race, 67 percent of nonwhites reported a great deal of respect for police.

To improve for future studies, researchers suggest analyzing visual footage rather than just text to take into account body language and facial expressions.

According to Eberhardt, “Our findings are not proof of bias or wrongdoing on the part of individual officers.”

“Many factors could drive racial disparities in respectful speech,” she said.

But for many people, these findings only confirm what has long been believed.

In response to the study Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tweeted, “It’s always important to have the research, but yes, we know.”

The research also points to the increasing awareness of the usefulness of body cams. However, even when departments implement body cam policies and purchase the equipment, they are not always effective.

A study updated in August 2016 concluded that of 50 United States police departments with body cam policies, none of them were effectively and appropriately implementing these policies. Notably, the police department in Ferguson, Mo., failed to meet even the minimum qualifications in any of the areas the study took into account.

“Transparency and accountability doesn’t come automatically just because a police department has decided to buy cameras,” said Harlan Yu, principal of Upturn, the organization that authored the study.

“Body cameras carry the promise of officer accountability, but accountability is far from automatic,” Yu said.

Read more news @ DiversityInc.com

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  • If you start with good people, you get better results. If someone joins the department because they need a job but the applicant is a good person, you get a better officer than someone who wants to get back at people because he felt slighted in life and is now going to make people pay. I have had encounters with cops where they were very disrespectful because they felt they could get away with it. I heard a cop actually refer to a woman as a bi–h. He even said it twice in case she did not hear it the first time. This is why African Americans and other minorities do not trust them because they disrespect us at will.

    • Charity Dell

      JEFF–Remember that most police officers come from the Lowest Socioeconomic Strata of American society.
      They are typically from poor and working-class backgrounds, poorly educated (or uneducated); and eager to
      use weapons on people they do not respect. Police departments should insist that all their officers get a bachelor’s
      degree in Criminal Justice, with a curriculum that exposes officers to the multicultural, multiethnic mosaic that
      is the American people. Traditional “police academy” does not really train officers how to DE-ESCALATE
      situations and typically trains officers to regard people of color–Native American, African-American,
      Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern–as “the enemy.” If more officers were required to obtain bachelor’s
      degrees, this would weed out the younger, more violent “hothead” types who just want to beat up on
      non-white flesh. Officers should also be required to learn Spanish and/or other languages in those
      communities in which they serve.

      • So true. My brother-in-law has a bachelors degree in criminal justice and he told me many years ago that most police forces are now looking for people with degrees. He said that it has been found that officers with degrees make better decisions. Here in NYC,you have to have at least 60 college credits to become a police officer. My daughter’s ex-fiancé wanted to become a police officer and he showed me a recruitment flyer from North Carolina, I forget which city, and they had a level for officers with college and without college. I told him he had better get that degree- the money and the chances for advancement were significantly lower for the officer without.

  • Charity Dell

    Any Black or Latino driver gets nervous if we are pulled over for ANY reason, including those inspections
    for seat belt checks, dysfunctional tail lights and/or APB’s put out for real criminals. Any time a law enforcement
    official comes to our car windows, we have but 15 seconds to:

    A. Visually scan the officer before and during their arrival to your car;
    B. Assess the officer by gender, ethnicity, age, and demeanor;
    C. Evaluate the officer’s emotional and/or psychological state;
    D. Put together a strategy to survive the encounter, including calming the officer down.

    DRIVING WHILE BLACK (DWB), DRIVING WHILE LATINO (DWL) and in some communities–
    still constitutes an “offense” to many law enforcement officers patrolling our streets, roads and highways.

    1. We DREAD the words “Please exit the vehicle”, because we KNOW WE MAY NOT SURVIVE TO GET HOME. “Please exit the vehicle” is often code language for “you are about to be executed.” Children and/or youth may get
    to see their parents, guardians or caretakers summarily executed in or outside the vehicle.

    Survival is NOT guaranteed, no matter how calmly we speak; no matter how serene our demeanor;
    no matter how we are dressed; no matter our age and/or gender; no matter how well we enunciate The King’s English;
    no matter how gently we speak or how we smile to “not appear sullen”; no matter how we “PEFORM THE UNSPOKEN

    A. Place your hands where the police can see them on the steering wheel;
    B. Move v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and avoid sudden or nervous moves;

    This is America.

      • Just want to add, that even for a very little-feared group, an older white woman – being pulled over by police is also scary, in that I don’t WANT an expensive speeding ticket, or ticket for some other violation that they noticed, but I may have cut a corner or missed. Being pulled over by police, is a bit like having to go to the dentist – I feel sorry for professionals in both professions, for nobody says, “Oh good, I have to deal with these people now!”

        I do believe there are other issues of major ignorance at play, across race, where policing is based on a culture that assumes (in over-exaggeration) broader antagonism, and one that expects no movement, dealing with a culture much more comfortable with movement, volume or expressive words, all being part of a conversation, not an op positional threat.

        So,the worst that I fear with a police encounter, is a ticket expense that I did not plan for. I can only feel terrible for people of color and parents, who fear consequences which are so much worse, and irreparable.

        • I have a friend who was driving on a trip who got out of a ticket while driving her own Mercedes, explaining to the officer that she was taking her “boss lady’s” car to her and she would be very upset about a ticket. She didn’t get one, though she laughed initially, she got furious at the result of her little test.

        • she can “only” feel terrible…y’all pick up on that? thats the ONLY thing you can do? wake up my people…

      • Charity Dell

        ALEX–Unfortunately, you are correct! In many communities in America, you can be arrested and executed for:

        1. Driving While Native American (DWNA).
        2. Driving While Middle Eastern: (DWNE–or appearing to be);
        3. Driving While Asian; (DWA–any ethncity not identified by the police officer);
        4. Driving While Non-White (any category or ethnicity). (DWNW)

        Any of these categories is enough to get your pulled over, pulled out
        of your vehicle and SUMMARILY EXECUTED because the officer
        “feared for her/his life.”

        • How about “Driving While Non-White in Your Own Middle Class (or Upper Class) Predominantly White Neighborhood”? Or, “Driving While Non-White in a Luxury Vehicle”? Or combining them?

      • Derrick Jones

        It’s hard for some to understand that sometimes you’re just another “potential suspect who fit the description of unknown perpetrator that may have warrants and possibly may have committed a crime.” During a routine traffic stop a cop actually asked me was the reason I was being so calm because I had something hide. I guess the look of dismay that I gave him after his insulting question pissed him off because his next statement was “Is there a problem?” So my answer was, ” Yes officer and I will be sure to properly report it.” So evoking stress in situations is a tactic that cops use on people of color to justify the training that teaches them that we hotheads by nature. So you best defense is to know your rights because trust and believe most of the don’t or may know how to circumvent the system to tip the scales of justice in their favor.

    • And I struggle over what to do about retrieving your license and registration. I generally hurriedly open my glove compartment to get the registration and pull my wallet out with my license, but is that safe. What do my sons and daughter do? Wait until the officer comes and put their hands on the wheel and then reach into the glove compartment?

      • I ALWAYS open my window, place my hands in the whell and wait until they ask me to retrieve those items

        If its at night, I also turn on the interior dome light

  • “The study did not find significant differences in the officers’ formality when speaking with white versus black drivers. However, differences were significant when it came to respect.” I don’t understand the difference. Looks to me like the Stanford bunch might be trying to split hairs. These two sentences sound, to me, like someone trying to begin to explain something like restaurant fashion and haute couture to me and my factory shift team mates.

      • I don’t think the article is very current. Who on earth says “My man”? Nobody that I’ve heard. To me, language focus – the study itself suggests that coders just recorded the reports of people who said “Man”, and added them in under, “My man”.

        Language is fluid and relational, and if a familiar person, white or Black, said, “man” at the end of a direction, it would only be offensive if they were trying to pretend to a familiarity they did not feel. The word can indicate an effort to call upon familiarity, or if none exists, then using such words is manipulation.

        I prefer the police to generally say “sir” – and not pretend familiarity.

        And lastly, the instructions to put your hands on the steering wheel and keep them there – in today’s climate, is a thoughtful effort to avoid confusion with fatal results. I believe the article’s points are very important, and the effort to do such research is welcome; but this study sounds like they are written up by people far away.

        • People of other ethnicities often think that “my man” is a term used by African Americans. If you are of European decent chances are, you will not hear that term. Your interpretation of the entire article shows a interesting viewpoint from one race attempting to analyze a issue of another race. It’s WAY off base but also makes sense considering the source.

  • Dr. B. Greenberg

    I remembered an article http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2010/01/code_black.html which accused the then president Obama of switching styles and dialects when addressing different groups. I find it interesting how people are so quick to put the negative spin on the data when they are completely ignorant of any relevant supported theory of explanation. For the ass clowns out there, i refer you to Howard Giles Communication accommodation theory (CAT). Until you have read this or others publishing similarly you are just noise.

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