For any Black man or woman who has ever been pulled over for speeding or a traffic infraction, it’s not just your imagination that police officers are more condescending, aggressive and less respectful. New research from the American Psychological Association confirms that the average police officer speaks to Black drivers in a “more disrespectful tone” during a typical traffic stop than they do to white drivers.
Maya Brown of NBC News reported that the APA study “analyzed body camera footage from more than 100 police officers and used 250 audio clips from an unnamed mid-sized U.S. city and revealed that officers spoke to Black men in a tone of voice that conveyed less warmth, respect and ease in comparison to white men.”
In an interview with NBC News, Nicholas Camp, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of organizational studies at the University of Michigan, said, “we were analyzing this footage both to identify challenges with police-community relations and to try to offer some suggestions.”
Lt. Diane Goldstein, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, confirmed the message of the research and said that studies like the one conducted by the APA are essential for not only helping to educate officers against potential unconscious bias but transforming policing policies overall.
“It’s really important to have this very difficult conversation around the issue of race,” said Goldstein. “I know it makes law enforcement uncomfortable, but if we don’t squarely face it, we are not going to be able to transform police in the fashion that we should, and we aren’t going to be able to protect our communities.”
Sadly, Brown reported that this isn’t the first time Camp and his team have discovered problems with police language or attitudes. In a previous research project that focused on the Oakland, California area, the group found that “compared with white residents, Black community members were 61% more likely to hear words such as ‘dude’ and ‘bro’ and ‘hands on the wheel’ during traffic stops.”
Anand Subramanian, the managing director at PolicyLink, a research nonprofit focused on economic and social equity, told NBC News that he believes this type of ongoing police distrust is, unfortunately, built into our system of policing and stems from a “deeply anti-Black” system of law enforcement that “evolved directly from slave patrols.”
“It starts with the idea that Black folks are inherently violent, that intercommunal violence in Black communities is worse than police violence against Black folks and that Black folks should be viewed with suspicion,” Subramanian said.
Although Subramanian said initiatives stemming from the APA research to educate and increase awareness of the issue is a positive step toward reform, he also noted that police brutality is something the Black community has had to endure for decades, conceding that it may be difficult to change perceptions on both sides.
“The distrust that we’ve started sowing in our police departments are going to have some pretty damning consequences because the police need the trust of the community to do their job, and when the community turns on them,” Subramanian said. “It just makes it more dangerous for everyone.”