'Keep Your Hands on the Wheel, My Man'

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.

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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.


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.

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