Study Finds That Police Officers Speak to Black Drivers Less Respectfully Than White Drivers

·3 min read

An American Psychological Association analysis of body camera footage from more than 100 police officers found that during traffic stops, officers tended to speak to Black men in a less respectful and less friendly tone than they typically did with white men.

That might not come off as a surprise if you’re Black or if you’ve heard stories of some Black people’s interactions with the police during traffic stops–many of which are disproportionately fatal when involving Black motorists. But, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, these accounts are now backed by research.

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From the Times:

“It really reflects the amount of work that law enforcement needs to continue to do,” said Diane Goldstein, executive director of the nonprofit Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “We have to recognize the problem, we have to acknowledge our unconscious biases in these types of situations, and we have to acknowledge the role that race plays in the criminal justice system.”

This study, which was published on Monday, builds off of previous research that found the language used by police in Oakland, Calif. was less respectful toward Black residents when compared to white residents.

According to the Times, the new study focuses more on tone than word choice.

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.

On a scale of 1 to 6, the average score of officer tone toward white drivers was 3.72 (slightly positive) while the average score toward black drivers was 3.5 (neither positive nor negative).

The perception of the listeners remained the same, regardless of their age, race, gender and political orientation, according to the Times.

So, what should be the main takeaway from all of this?

Tracey Mears, a Yale University professor that specializes in citizen perception of police, told the Times that while the difference between the scores wasn’t huge, the key thing to know is that “there are differences that can be detected.”

Charles Ramsey, a former Washington D.C. police chief who now works as a law enforcement analyst for CNN argued that the tone police officers take during traffic stops depends on various circumstances, including whether they were pulled over for a minor traffic violation or because they were intoxicated. He added that officers “should never be disrespectful.”

For this study, only routine traffic stops were used for the analysis. No arrests were made during any of the interactions.

Nicholas Camp, an assistant professor of organizational studies for the University of Michigan and lead researcher for the study, said this to CNN:

“One of the most important tools that officers have at their disposal with the public is their communication,” Camp said. “Communication and this interpersonal aspect of policing is undervalued and sometimes overlooked.”

“... We know from previous research that people base their trust in law enforcement based on their personal experiences,” Camp added. “We show that these are institutional interactions — that things like an officer’s language or tone of voice, just very human parts of their communication, matter for community members’ trust in the police.”

It’ll definitely take much, MUCH more work to rectify many Black people’s distrust of the police. But, if they’re going to start somewhere, being nicer during traffic stops might be one of many good places to begin with.