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When a police officer pulls over a Black driver, the first 45 words said by that officer contain important clues about what might happen in their encounter.
Traffic stops that result in a search, handcuffing, or arrest are nearly three times more likely to begin with the police issuing a command, such as “Keep your hands on the wheel” or “Turn off the car.”
That’s according to a new one study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences who analyzed police body-camera footage of 577 routine traffic stops involving Black drivers.
Eighty-one of these stops involved searches, handcuffs, or arrests. This type of outcome is more likely when a police officer’s initial words provide a reason for the stop.
“The first 45 words, less than 30 seconds on average, spoken by a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop on a Black driver can be very telling about how the stop ends,” said Eugenia Rhoa researcher at Virginia Tech.
Amid the recent high-profile killings of Tire Nichols and other Black motorists following a traffic stop, the findings offer a grim sketch of how police stops can escalate and how those who recognize Black men are the warning signs.
Rho and his colleagues focused on Black drivers because this group is stopped by the police at higher rates and is more likely to be handcuffed, searched, and arrested than any other racial group.
“Vehicle stops are the most common way people come into contact with the police,” said Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University. “With the spread of body-worn cameras, we now have access to how these interactions unfold in real time.”
All stops in this study took place in a racially diverse, medium-sized US city over a period of one month; researchers cannot identify the city for privacy reasons.
“The majority of the stops we’re looking at are stops for common traffic violations, not for other things that are more serious,” Eberhardt said.
The scientists controlled for factors such as the gender and race of the officer, as well as the crime rate in the neighborhood. About 200 officers were involved in these stops.
“It’s not really a function of a few officials driving this pattern,” Rho said.
The words or actions of the person behind the wheel of the car do not seem to contribute to the aggravation.
“The drivers are just answering the officers’ questions and explaining what’s going on,” Eberhardt said. “They work together.”
To understand how Black men perceive the initial language used by police officers during a car stop, researchers asked 188 Black men to listen to recordings of the opening moments of the stop of the car.
It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that Black men are very attuned to the implications of a police officer initiating an interaction with a command.
“When officers initiated warrantless orders, Black male participants predicted that the stop would increase in more than 84% of those cases,” Rho said.
And even though none of the stops in this study involved the use of force, Black men were concerned about the possibility of force 80% of the time when they heard a recording of a law enforcement officer law that issues an order without offering a reason.
“In this country, we know more about fear of Blacks than fears of Blacks,” Eberhardt said. “Many Black people fear the police, even during routine traffic stops.
Eberhardt said millions of people know about the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020 after police pulled him from his car, but fewer people know what happened in the first moments when he was approached by an officer.
“We reviewed the first 27 seconds of Floyd’s encounter with the police that day. And we found that Floyd was apologizing to the officers who were standing outside his car window, Floyd was asking for the reason for the stop, he pleaded, he explained, he followed orders, he expressed fear,” he said. “However, every response to Floyd is an order.”
From the start, police officers had issued commands without giving Floyd an explanation–the same linguistic signature associated with escalation in this study.
Tracey Mearesa professor at Yale Law and a founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, reviewed this study and said he found it fascinating to see this kind of social dynamic measured with precision.
“It’s hard to say no to that,” he said, noting that some communities are rethinking whether they want armed law enforcement involved in traffic violations.
“There are stark racial disparities in who gets stopped and who doesn’t,” Meares said, pointing out that in the one-month period covered by this study, city police officers made 588 that stops Black drivers and only 262 white drivers. .
More than 15% of Black drivers experienced an increased outcome such as a search, handcuffing, or arrest, while less than 1% of white drivers experienced one of those outcomes.
“They’re not drawing any conclusions from that, but these are things we should pay attention to,” Meares said. “This prevents the notion that there are more traffic violations.”
Rho said in planning this study, they initially set out to look at patterns associated with an increase in traffic stops for white drivers, but realized that this happened infrequently for white drivers who did not have enough that number to include them in the analysis.