Ra­cial bias in of­fi­cers’ man­ner?

Oak­land po­lice treat black driv­ers less re­spect­fully than white ones, ac­cord­ing to a lin­guis­tic study.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - KAREN KAPLAN karen.kaplan @la­times.com Twit­ter @LATkarenka­plan

Af­ter re­view­ing tran­scripts of traf­fic stops in­volv­ing 981 mo­torists, Stan­ford re­searchers have come up with proof of some­thing that many Amer­i­cans have be­lieved for a very long time: Po­lice of­fi­cers tend to treat black cit­i­zens with less re­spect than white cit­i­zens.

This is true re­gard­less of the po­lice of­fi­cer’s own ra­cial back­ground, the re­searchers found. Nor does it mat­ter whether the traf­fic stop oc­curs in a busi­ness district or res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood, or whether the crime rate in the area is high or low.

When you boil it all down, the in­escapable con­clu­sion is this: “Of­fi­cers’ lan­guage is less re­spect­ful when speak­ing to black com­mu­nity mem­bers,” ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished last week in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences.

If this sounds like a triv­ial thing, the re­searchers as­sure you that it is not.

In any given year, more than 1 in 4 Amer­i­cans who are old enough to drive have some kind of en­counter with a po­lice of­fi­cer, usu­ally as a re­sult of a traf­fic stop.

If these in­ter­ac­tions go smoothly, the po­lice build re­spect within their com­mu­nity. If they don’t, the pub­lic’s trust in law en­force­ment erodes, and cit­i­zens may be­come less will­ing “to sup­port or co­op­er­ate with the po­lice,” the study au­thors said.

The re­searchers, led by Rob Voigt, a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Stan­ford’s lin­guis­tics depart­ment, took ad­van­tage of the rapid spread of po­lice body cam­eras to con­duct their study.

They ob­tained 183 hours’ worth of footage from the Po­lice Depart­ment in Oak­land, a city that is both large (pop­u­la­tion 420,005) and racially di­verse (39% white, 26% black, 16% Asian, 6% two or more races and 26% Latino). The record­ings were made in April 2014.

Voigt and his col­leagues fo­cused their at­ten­tion on traf­fic stops in­volv­ing 682 black driv­ers and 299 white ones. Once the footage was tran­scribed, they iden­ti­fied 36,738 dis­tinct com­ments, or “ut­ter­ances,” made by 245 po­lice of­fi­cers.

The study was con­ducted in mul­ti­ple steps:

First, the re­searchers ran­domly se­lected 414 of the 36,738 ut­ter­ances and paired each one with the driver com­ment that im­me­di­ately pre­ceded it.

These ex­changes were given to 70 study vol­un­teers, who rated the de­gree to which of­fi­cers were re­spect­ful, po­lite, friendly, for­mal and im­par­tial. Each ex­change was rated at least 10 times, and the vol­un­teers weren’t told whether the mo­torist was black or white, male or fe­male.

Even so, a clear pat­tern emerged: 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.

Break­ing things down, the re­searchers de­ter­mined that 71% of the vari­ance in the way black driv­ers and white driv­ers were treated could be traced to “Re­spect” with a cap­i­tal R, a com­po­nent of all five of the at­tributes ex­am­ined.

Next, the re­searchers used com­pu­ta­tional lin­guists to de­ter­mine the kinds of lan­guage that con­veyed Re­spect (or lack thereof). Apol­o­giz­ing, ex­press­ing grat­i­tude, of­fer­ing re­as­sur­ances, show­ing con­cern for a mo­torist’s per­sonal safety and ad­dress­ing driv­ers as “sir” or “ma’am” all con­trib­uted to a per­cep­tion of Re­spect, among others.

On the other hand, of­fi­cers racked up neg­a­tive scores for Re­spect by us­ing in­for­mal ti­tles (“my man”) or ask­ing driv­ers to keep their hands on the steer­ing wheel, to name a few ex­am­ples.

Once the model had been “tuned” on the 414 ex­changes, the re­searchers tested it on the en­tire sam­ple of 36,738 ut­ter­ances. The re­sults re­vealed that of­fi­cers con­veyed more Re­spect when speak­ing to driv­ers who were white than to driv­ers who were black.

That dis­par­ity was ap­par­ent within the first 5% of an in­ter­ac­tion be­tween of­fi­cer and driver, the re­searchers re­ported. Then it kept grow­ing, since the amount of Re­spect shown to driv­ers grew over the course of a traf­fic stop, but it grew more quickly for white driv­ers than black ones.

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.”

Justin Sul­li­van Getty Images

THE DIS­PAR­ITY in Oak­land cops’ ap­proaches to stopped driv­ers was so stark that it was pos­si­ble to pre­dict the mo­torist’s race in two-thirds of the in­ter­ac­tions.

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