The proven truth: Police treat Black Americans with less respect

by Lucius Couloute, June 8, 2017

Policing in the United States is a highly polarized issue. According to one national poll, Black Americans are much more likely to report being treated unfairly by the police compared to their white counterparts. This is nothing new, of course. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system have always existed and can be linked to Black Americans’ distrust of the police, courts, and other arms of the state. New research out of Stanford University, however, uses novel data to substantiate what Black America has always known – that police officers treat Blacks differently than they do whites.

In their report, the authors find that “police officers speak significantly less respectfully to black than to white community members in everyday traffic stops,” and that this lack of respect occurs irrespective of the officer’s race, severity of the infraction, and even the outcome of the stop.

Rob Voigt and his co-authors capitalized on the growing adoption of body cameras in police forces across the country as a new source of data. The research team used video footage from 682 stops of Black drivers and 299 stops of white drivers in Oakland, California to analyze the language used by police officers in their interactions with community members during routine traffic stops.

In the first phase of the study, volunteers rated the respectfulness of language used by police in a sub-sample of police-community interactions. The volunteers reviewed transcriptions (not recordings) of interactions, so the race of both the officers and civilians were unknown to volunteers. The researchers found that even these “thin slices of police-community interactions reveal racial disparities in how respectful, impartial, polite, friendly, and formal officers’ language to community members was perceived.”

For the second phase, Voigt and his colleagues constructed a computational model that was able to interpret large swaths of transcribed video footage; a necessary step if we are ever to address the 26 million police vehicle stops occurring each year in the United States. Rooted in linguistic theories of respect, these models examined whether police officers used respectful language, like formal titles (Sir, Ma’am), showed concern for driver safety (“drive safe, please”), or instead used less respectful expressions, like commands to keep “hands on the wheel” or statements that addressed civilians by first name only.

Based on their entire sample, which included over 36,000 officer utterances, they found that whites are 57% more likely to hear an officer say one of the most respectful phrases – those involving gratitude or apologies for example – whereas Blacks were 61% more likely to hear officers use one of the least respectful expressions.

Although we’ve known for a while now that differences in satisfaction with police exist, this analysis of big data is the first to objectively measure how police officers communicate with the public and the racial disparities present in police-civilian interactions. “At the very least,” Voigt explained in an interview with CNN, “this provides evidence for something that communities of color have reported, that this is a real phenomenon.”

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