No Surprise: Study Finds Police Are Most Disrespectful to Black Drivers

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Over the past few years, police encounters with Black drivers have become trending topics when the interaction results in the death of an unarmed Black person.  A study recently conducted with the Oakland Police Department and published in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,’ found police speak less respectfully to Black drivers. This is something Black people have been saying for years, but now there seems to be data to back it up.

The lead author of the study was Rob Voigt, a doctoral student in the linguistics department of Stanford University. Responding to his findings, Voigt says “At the very least this [study] provides evidence for something that communities of color have reported, that this is a real phenomenon.”

To conduct the study, 183 hours of body camera footage was taken during 981 routine traffic stops by 245 different Oakland Police Department officers in April 2014 were used. The officers’ interactions with community members were transcribed. Researchers then let volunteers analyze 312 utterances spoken to Black community members and 102 utterances spoken to White community members. Volunteers were asked to read the transcript of one community member’s utterance then the utterance by the police officer that followed in response. Ratings were based on a four-point scale of how respectful, polite, friendly, formal and impartial the officer was. 10 volunteers rated each interaction without knowing the names or races of those involved.

A computer model was developed by researchers to rate how respectful each interaction was based on pre-existing scientific literature about respectfulness and politeness. This means the computer model kept track of how the police officers introduced themselves, referred to someone as ma’am or sir, said please and thank you, and said “sorry to stop you” or “drive home safe, please,” which all show respect. The less respectful utterances included using informal titles such as “man,” first names and saying things like “do me a favor.”

In the end, researchers found White community members were 57% more likely to hear an officer say one of the respectful things in the dataset, while 61% of Black community members were more likely to hear an officer say one of the lest respectful utterances, such as informal titles.

Now that we have the results, what’s the next step?