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When a black driver is pulled over by a police officer, the first 45 words that officer says hold important clues as to how their confrontation is likely to go.
Parking lots that lead to a search, handcuffing, or arrest are about three times more likely to begin with a police officer issuing an order, such as “keep your hands on the wheel” or “stop the car.”
This is according to a file Stady In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences It examined police body cam footage of 577 routine car stops involving black drivers.
Eighty-one of these stops involved searches and eventual restraints or arrests. This type of outcome was less likely when the police officer’s first words provided a reason to stop.
“The first 45 words, averaging less than 30 seconds, said by a law enforcement officer during a stop to a black driver can tell us exactly how the stop ended,” Eugenia Rowea researcher at Virginia Tech.
Amid the recent killings of Tyre Nichols and other black motorists after a traffic stop, the findings provide a grim blueprint for how police stops can escalate and how black men recognize warning signs.
Roe and her colleagues focused on black drivers because this group is stopped by police at higher rates and is more likely to be handcuffed, searched and arrested than any other racial group.
“A car being stopped is by far the most common way to contact the police,” he says Jennifer Eberhart, a social psychologist at Stanford University. “With the proliferation of body-worn cameras, we now have access to how these interactions occur in real time.”
All cut-offs in this study occurred in a medium-sized, ethnically diverse US city over the course of one month. The researchers will not specify the city for privacy reasons.
“The vast majority of stops we’re looking at are stops for routine traffic infractions, not for other, more serious things,” says Eberhardt.
The scientists controlled for factors such as the officer’s gender and race, as well as the crime rate in the neighborhood. About 200 officers participated in these vigils.
“It’s not really a job for a few officers who drive this style,” Rowe says.
The words or actions of the person behind the wheel did not appear to contribute to the escalation.
“Drivers just answer the officers’ questions and explain what’s going on,” says Eberhardt. “They are cooperative.”
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 a car stop.
It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that these black men were highly attuned to the implications of a police officer starting to handle a warrant.
“When officers began issuing orders without reason, black male participants expected the suspension to escalate in more than 84% of those cases,” Rowe says.
And although none of the stops in this study involved the use of force, the black men worried that force might be used 80% of the time when they heard a recording of a law enforcement officer issuing an order without giving a reason.
“In this country, we know more about black fears than we do about black fears,” says Eberhardt. “Many black people are afraid of the police, even in routine parking lots. That fear is a fear that can be rekindled or soothed with the first words an officer speaks.”
Millions of people know about the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 after police officers removed him from his car, Eberhardt points out, but very few people know what happened in the first moments when an officer approached him.
“We analyzed the first 27 seconds of Floyd’s encounter with police that day. We found that Floyd apologizes to officers standing outside his car window, asks Floyd for a reason to stop, pleads, makes it clear, that he’s following orders, he expresses his fear,” she says. So, every response to Floyd is an order.”
From the start, the police officers issued orders without giving Floyd an explanation — the same language signature associated with escalation in this study.
Tracy Meresa Yale law professor and founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, reviewed the study and says she found it amusing to see this kind of social dynamic measured so accurately.
“It’s hard to deny,” she says, noting that some communities are rethinking whether they want armed law enforcement involved in traffic violations.
“There are stark racial differences between who gets pulled over and who doesn’t,” Meres says, noting that in the month period covered by this study, city police officers carried out 588 stops for black drivers and only 262 stops for white drivers.
More than 15% of black drivers faced an escalating consequence such as being searched, handcuffed, or arrested, while less than 1% of white drivers faced one of these outcomes.
“They don’t draw any conclusions from that, but those are things we just have to pay attention to,” Meres says. “It is naive that there are so many traffic violations.”
Rho says in planning this study, they initially set out to look at patterns in traffic de-escalation for white drivers as well, but realized it happened so rarely to white drivers that there weren’t enough numbers to include them in an analysis.
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