STANFORD (CBS SF) — The odds of hearing a police officer say “thank you,” or utter an apology during a routine traffic stop in Oakland are much higher for a white driver than a black driver.
New research from Stanford examines the level of respect Oakland officers show through the way they speak to whites and blacks in the community. After examining body camera footage from hundreds of traffic stops, researchers found whites were accorded far more respect than blacks for similar infractions.
The study is the first of its kind and comes during an era of heightened awareness due to the proliferation of video recordings capturing the police shootings of unarmed black people across the nation. Oakland Police Department deals with a racially diverse community fraught with historical tensions. The department intends to use the data to help comply with a court-ordered mandate to reform.
In Oakland, officers turn on their cameras before each stop and keep them running for the duration. The Stanford team, comprised of linguists, psychologists and computer scientists, developed special software that examined the transcripts of 981 OPD traffic stops in a single month, scouring them for racial inequalities. The findings were published in the June edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
The results reveal that white drivers are 57 percent more likely than black residents to hear a police officer say the most respectful utterances, such as apologies and expressions of gratitude like “thank you.” Conversely, black drivers were 61 percent more likely to be disrespected with, for example, informal titles like “dude”, and “bro,” or commands to keep their “hands on the wheel.”
“To be clear: There was no swearing,” said Dan Jurafsky, a study co-author and Stanford professor of linguistics and of computer science said in a press release. “These were well-behaved officers. But the many small differences in how they spoke with community members added up to pervasive racial disparities.”
The study’s methodology was divided into three phases.
First, human participants looked at a sample of transcribed encounters with no foreknowledge of the person’s race or gender and rated the officers’ language in terms of respect.
Then, researchers used those ratings to tease out a linguistic model and created software that could analyze the officers’ language, much as the human participants did in phase one. It parsed conversations looking for certain patterns of speech: apologies and expressions of concern for well-being were rated high on the scale, while negative words, use of first names, and phrases like “hands on the whee” scored low. It also factored in the severity of the infraction, whether a citation or arrest resulted, gender, age and the race of the officer.
In the last phase officers used the software to analyze the remaining transcripts — 36,0000 officer utterances with 483,966 words, in all.
The study focuses on black and white community members, but other races were shown less respect than whites, as well, though none as much as blacks.
While the racial disparities were consistent, the researchers say the causes for the disparities were less clear.
“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,” says the study. “However, community member speech cannot be the sole cause of these disparities.”
In phase one, the human examiners found racial disparities even “in the context of the community member’s utterances.” The data showed that officers spoke differently to blacks and whites even before the driver “had the opportunity to say much at all.”
Researchers say the findings are not necessarily proof of any wrongdoing or bias on the part of the officers. But nonetheless, the impact of the disparity is far reaching. They influence a community’s perception of fairness, as well as their willingness to trust and cooperate with the police.
It is also worth mentioning it may prevent one community from being able to empathize with the experience of the other because they have had such a different experience during their encounters with police officers.
Jennifer Eberhardt, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Stanford lauded the Oakland Police Department for their participation. She hopes to collaborate with more departments across the country.
“I’m hopeful that, with the development of computational tools like ours, more law enforcement agencies will approach their body camera footage as data for understanding, rather than as evidence for blaming or exonerating,” Eberhardt said. “Together, researchers and police departments can use these tools to improve police-community relations.”
CBSSF.com writer, producer Jan Mabry is also executive producer of Bay Sunday and Black Renaissance and host of The Bronze Report. She lives in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter @janmabr.