Researchers analyzed the language recorded by body cameras during police stops, and concluded that police officers talk more respectfully to White residents than non-White residents. The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, included 183 hours of body camera footage taken during 981 routine traffic stops in April 2014 by 245 different officers in the Oakland Police Department.
The researchers found:
"Police officers speak significantly less respectfully to black than to white community members in everyday traffic stops, even after controlling for officer race, infraction severity, stop location, and stop outcome. This paper presents a systematic analysis of officer body-worn camera footage, using computational linguistic techniques to automatically measure the respect level that officers display to community members. This work demonstrates that body camera footage can be used as a rich source of data rather than merely archival evidence, and paves the way for developing powerful language-based tools for studying and potentially improving police–community relations. "
The study included random selections of 312 utterances spoken to black residents and 102 utterances spoken to white residents. Next, 10 volunteers rated each interaction without knowing the names, races, or identifying information of the police officers. Then, the researchers used a computer model to analyze the ratings based upon scientific literature about respect.
Why this study is important:
"Despite the rapid proliferation of body-worn cameras, no law enforcement agency has systematically analyzed the massive amounts of footage these cameras produce. Instead, the public and agencies alike tend to focus on the fraction of videos involving high-profile incidents, using footage as evidence of innocence or guilt in individual encounters... Previous research on police–community interactions has relied on citizens’ recollection of past interactions or researcher observation of officer behavior to assess procedural fairness. Although these methods are invaluable, they offer an indirect view of officer behavior and are limited to a small number of interactions...
"... white community members are 57% more likely to hear an officer say one of the most respectful utterances in our dataset, whereas black community members are 61% more likely to hear an officer say one of the least respectful utterances in our dataset. (Here we define the top 10% of utterances to be most respectful and the bottom 10% to be least respectful.) This work demonstrates the power of body camera footage as an important source of data, not just as evidence, addressing limitations with methodologies that rely on citizens’ recollection of past interactions..."
Perhaps, most importantly (bold emphasis added):
"The racial disparities in officer respect are clear and consistent, yet the causes of these disparities are 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. However, community member speech cannot be the sole cause of these disparities... We observe racial disparities in officer respect even in police utterances from the initial 5% of an interaction, suggesting that officers speak differently to community members of different races even before the driver has had the opportunity to say much at all."
"Regardless of cause, we have found that police officers’ interactions with blacks tend to be more fraught, not only in terms of disproportionate outcomes (as previous work has shown) but also interpersonally, even when no arrest is made and no use of force occurs. These disparities could have adverse downstream effects, as experiences of respect or disrespect in personal interactions with police officers play a central role in community members’ judgments of how procedurally fair the police are as an institution, as well as the community’s willingness to support or cooperate with the police."
The findings indicate training opportunities for law enforcement, and apply only to the Oakland, California police department. Additional studies are needed to draw conclusions about other police departments. CNN interviewed Rob Voigt, the lead author of the study at Stanford University:
"We're also hoping it inspires police departments to consider cooperating with researchers more. And facilitating this kind of analysis of body camera footage will help police departments improve their relationship with the community, and it will give them techniques for better communication... When people feel they're respected by the police, they are more likely to trust the police, they are more likely to cooperate with the police, and so on and so forth. So we have reason to expect that these differences that we find have real-world effects."
I look forward to future studies. What are your opinions?