The latest research builds upon a landmark 2017 study out of Stanford University, which analyzed nearly 1,000 traffic stops by Oakland, California police officers, recorded in 2014. As The Los Angeles Times reported at the time, the study, which kept the race and gender of the driver out out of recordings presented to participants, noted that regardless of the officers’ demographics or the reason for the stop, “when the motorist was Black, police officers were judged to be less respectful, less polite, less friendly, less formal and less impartial than when the motorist was white.”
The difference was so stark that in two-thirds of the cases, it was possible to predict whether the motorist was black or white based solely on the words used by officers.
The model gave researchers a chance to test out various theories about why the police treated black citizens less respectfully than white citizens. For instance:
- Was it because black drivers were pulled over for more serious offenses than white drivers? No.
- Was it a consequence of officers speaking more formally with white motorists and more colloquially with black motorists? No.
- Could the actions of a few “bad apple” officers account for the overall trend? No.
- Did this discrepancy arise only in cases that resulted in a citation or a ticket, but not in “everyday” interactions? No.
“We have found that police officers’ interactions with blacks tend to be more fraught … even when no arrest is made and no use of force occurs,” the study authors concluded. “The racial disparities in officer respect are clear and consistent, yet the causes of these disparities are less clear.”
Sure, wouldn’t want to assume the causes for the “racial disparities in officer respect” have anything to do with white supremacy and racism.
Here’s some data visualization the researchers made. First, we see some sample exchanges, and how they landed on the study’s “Respect” model. Consider which of these sentences more accurately align with your experiences with being pulled over? More importantly, do any of these approaches seem completely foreign to you?
Next, we see how such factors of the “Respect” model were applied to Black and white drivers.
Our interactions with law enforcement shape the way we perceive the experiences of others. We’ve all seen white people rush to back the blue when disparities in policing are discussed, simply because they’ve only been treated with respect.
Example: I’ve written of this before, but when I was 22, I got pulled over for a loud muffler around the corner from my house. The cop made me get out of the car for some reason; it was the first time that had ever been asked of me. As I slid out, the officer shouted “WEAPON! WEAPON!” and by the time I was completely out of my car, there was a service pistol inches from my face. The supervising sergeant riding along with this gun-happy guy immediately intervened and ordered him to holster his gun, but it was too late. I shook as I tried to contain my bladder on the busy street, and failed.
I had just finished a bartending shift, and had some pens, a bottle opener, and a wine key in my back pocket. Those were the “weapons” worthy of placing a gun in my face.
I told this story incessantly for the next few weeks, and my white friends were shocked that I was ordered out of the car; like me, it had never been asked of them. My Black male friends, however, were shocked that it was the first time I’d been ordered out of the car—they’d never not been asked to step out of their vehicle, and struggled to understand a world where that wasn’t the norm.
Which brings us to 2021, when four of the original researchers returned for a study that asks “how do routine police encounters build or undermine community trust, and how might they contribute to racial gaps in citizen perceptions of the police?” Cheekily called “The Thin Blue Waveform,” the new study focuses not on what police say to people, but how they say it.
The scientists note the value that body-worn cameras can provide beyond their current prominence in high-profile cases.
The interpersonal dimension of police encounters is all but invisible in administrative records. Stop data reports can reveal racial disparities in officers’ decisions to search or sanction citizens, but they cannot reveal whether officers address community members with respect or contempt. Interactions that are indistinguishable in administrative data may unfold quite differently in the experiences of community members, and have divergent consequences for their trust in law enforcement.
Body-worn cameras grant access to the interpersonal dimensions of these encounters for the first time. By capturing conversations between officer and citizen, they can reveal how these exchanges differ across race.
In short, body cameras make the relational aspects of policing visible. This lets us test mechanisms through which police interactions translate to institutional mistrust or trust, alongside the racial dynamics of such encounters. Here, we consider one subtle but socially important channel of communication that can only be accessed from BWC recordings: prosody, or the acoustic features of one’s voice.
Discrepancies weren’t as glaring as the 2017 research, but one trend was undeniable: Police officers speak to Black men far differently than they do to white men. The Los Angeles Times reports:
The scientists analyzed hundreds of audio clips — each roughly 10 seconds long — from routine traffic stops of Black or white men. The researchers filtered out the high frequencies of the sound clips, which essentially rendered the clips unintelligible but left the tone of voice intact. They also masked the drivers’ voices with “brown noise,” so that anyone hearing the clip would not be able to guess the motorists’ race.
The researchers then asked more than 400 people — a diverse group of white, Latino, Asian and Black volunteers — to listen to the clips and rate the officers’ tone of voice.
Across the board, clips of officers speaking to Black men got lower marks for friendliness, respectfulness and ease than those of officers speaking to white men — even though the listeners were not aware of the drivers’ race.
For Black Americans, both of these studies just confirm what we already know: Systemic racism rules supreme in law enforcement. But for white Americans, who more easily discard lived experiences that don’t mirror their own, who constantly demand data when they find themselves unable to believe Black people, who celebrate this era of prolific video because it gives them proof of that which they previously denied, these studies might actually change minds.
If only this research would lead law enforcement to address the rotten wood at the core of its foundation, we might actually see some improvement on this front.
I haven’t been pulled over since I moved to California nearly 14 years ago. Not once, in the Golden State nor while back home. The next time I am, I’ll still keep my hands on the dash, but this time, I’ll have my phone’s video camera running.