Body Cam Study Finds Oakland Police Speak Less Respectfully to Black People

by | June 6, 2017

 By Vivian Ho

Oakland police officers tend to speak less respectfully to black people than to white people during traffic stops, using language in these everyday interactions that can erode community faith in the police, according to a first-of-its-kind study of body-camera footage released Monday by Stanford researchers.

An analysis of 981 traffic stops made by 245 Oakland officers in April 2014 found that officers were more apt to use terms of respect such as "sir," "ma'am," "please" and "thank you" when dealing with white motorists when compared to black ones. They apologized to white people more frequently for having to stop them, and expressed concern, telling them to "drive safe."

After stopping black people, officers more often used terms deemed to be disrespectful, calling them by their first names, "bro" or "my man," and instructing them to keep their hands on the wheel, the study found.

"We found that the officers on average spoke fairly respectfully to people -- it was just that they spoke even more respectfully to white community members than they did to black community members," said Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford professor who co-authored the study. "No matter how we looked at the data, there was a race gap there."

The study found that officers spoke more respectfully and more formally to older people. But the racial disparities persisted even after researchers took into consideration the severity of the infraction and the location and outcome of the stop. The race of the officer making the stop "did not contribute a significant effect," the study said.

Oakland police officials did not respond to requests for comment on the findings, but indicated they may discuss the report in detail in the near future. The city cooperated in the study, which was part of an ongoing collaboration between the Police Department and Eberhardt, an expert on racial profiling.

The rise of police wearing body cameras has been embraced by both officers and police watchdogs as a way to collect evidence about confrontations that may come into dispute. But in the past, the footage has generally shed light on critical incidents like shootings, instead of offering a window into everyday interactions.

The Stanford researchers said their work showed that the videos could be tapped as a "rich source of data" and, in turn, become a training tool.

"The reason we chose to look at respect in particular is because we know from other research on procedural justice that respect is important to people," Eberhardt said. "You build trust with the community one interaction at a time. We were interested in looking at these more common everyday interactions that everybody was having, rather than these high-profile cases where you're trying to adjudicate who was right or wrong."

The researchers used a two-step process to dig into 183 hours of footage.

First, they had human participants look at transcripts of a sampling of officer "utterances," as well as what drivers said immediately beforehand, and rate the police communication in terms of respect. They then analyzed what about each utterance was judged to be respectful, and developed a computer program that applied the model to the rest of the footage.

For example, an utterance such as, "Sorry to stop you. My name is Officer (Redacted) with the Police Department" ranked higher in respect than, "All right, my man. Do me a favor. Just keep your hands on the steering wheel real quick."

The study found that white people were 57 percent more likely to hear an officer say something judged to be highly respectful, while black people were 61 percent more likely to hear an officer say something judged to be extremely disrespectful.

George Holland Sr., president of the Oakland chapter of the NAACP, said the study validated much of what he has heard from community members.

"People in certain communities tell each other that you better be wearing a white shirt and a tie so you'll get better treatment," he said. "Most of us learn at a very early age that the police are our enemy. It shouldn't ever be that way."

Eberhardt cautioned that the findings do not prove bias or wrongdoing in individual cases or on the part of individual officers.

"Our main point is that there are language disparities here that can be driven by a number of different factors and they can emerge even when officers don't hold any racial animus against blacks or any awareness that there are these differences in language use," she said.

A previous study led by Eberhardt, published last year, found that Oakland officers were four times as likely to search African American men as white men during a traffic or pedestrian stop.

There have been previous indications, though, that Oakland's adoption of body cameras starting in late 2010 has improved policing in the city, including a big drop in the number of use-of-force complaints made against officers.

While an officer's treatment of a person during a traffic stop may seem small in the scheme of things, Alicia Garza, an Oakland activist who co-founded Black Lives Matter, said it's important to see the interactions "as examples of larger patterns that have real tangible outcomes for people's lives."

"In a traffic stop, if an officer is kind, courteous and discreet, that traffic stop is less likely to result in a loss of life," she said. "Oftentimes when we talk about race and racism, we talk about individualized actions between people. But what Dr. Eberhardt's study is really pointing to is the ways people's individualized actions point to a systemic set of practices that has impacts on people's lives."

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle