Conjuring Disrespect

Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, Summer 2017

The attempt to find systemic police bias has come to this: the difference between an officer saying “uh” and saying “that, that’s.” According to Stanford University researchers, police officers in Oakland, California, use one of those verbal tics more often with white drivers and the other more often with black drivers. If you can guess which tic conveys “respect” and which “disrespect,” you may have a career ahead of you in the exploding field of bias psychology.

In June, a team of nine Stanford psychologists, linguists, and computer scientists released a paper purporting to show that Oakland police treat black drivers less respectfully than white ones.

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The most “disrespectful” officer utterance that the researchers presented was: “Steve, can I see that driver’s license again? It, it’s showing suspended. Is that—that’s you?” The second most “disrespectful” was: “All right, my man. Do me a favor. Just keep your hands on the steering wheel real quick.”

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Lead researcher Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford psychology professor, specializes in implicit bias, the idea that nearly everyone approaches allegedly disfavored groups with unconscious prejudice. The Oakland Police Department has given Eberhardt virtually unlimited access to its policing data as part of a federal consent decree governing the department’s operations.

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This latest study analyzed officer body-camera footage from 981 car stops that Oakland officers made during April 2014. Blacks were 682 of the drivers in those stops, whites 299. The resulting officer-driver conversations yielded 36,738 discrete officer utterances. In the first phase of the study, college students rated 414 of those officer utterances (1.1 percent of the total) for levels of respect. The students were shown what, if anything, the driver said immediately preceding each officer statement but were not shown any more of the earlier interaction between officer and driver. They were not told the race of the driver or officer or anything else about the stop.

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In the second phase of the study, the linguisticians tried to tease out which features of the 414 officer utterances had generated the student ratings. They came up with 22 categories of speech that seemed most determinative. On the positive scale were, inter alia, officer apologies, the use of surnames, the use of “um” and “uh” (known in linguistics as “filled pauses”), use of the word “just,” and what is referred to as “giving agency” (saying “you can,” “you may,” or “you could”). The eight negative categories included asking a question, “asking for agency” (phrases such as “do me a favor,” “allow me,” “may I,” “should I”), “disfluency” (a repeated word such as “that, that”), informal titles (“bro,” “my man”), first names, and, most disrespectful, the phrase “hands on the wheel.” If some of those distinctions seem arbitrary—“could I” is disrespectful, “you could” is respectful; “um” is respectful,” a word repetition is not—they are. More important, they are minute and innocuous. The 22 categories each received a score allegedly capturing their degree of respect or disrespect, with apologizing at the top of the respect scale and “hands on the wheel” at the bottom. There were no categories for swear words or even for unsoftened commands, presumably because officers never engaged in those forms of speech.

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If it were the case that we should worry about whether an officer says “you can” (good) or “can I” (bad) to black drivers, the study leaves out critical components of officer-civilian interactions. The most disrespectful phrase in the disrespect scale is “hands on the wheel.” Black drivers are 29 percent more likely to hear those words than white drivers. Why might an officer ask a driver to put his hands on the wheel? Perhaps because the driver was not complying with an officer’s initial requests or was otherwise belligerent. Yet nothing about driver behavior is included in phase three’s regression analyses—not drivers’ words, demeanor, or actions.

Moreover, given crime rates in Oakland, a black driver is far more likely than a white driver to be on parole or probation, a fact that will show up when an officer runs his plates or his license. In 2013, blacks committed 83 percent of homicides, attempted homicides, robberies, assaults with firearms, and assaults with weapons other than firearms in Oakland, according to Oakland PD data shared with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chris Johnson, even though blacks are only 28 percent of Oakland’s population. Whites were 1 percent of robbery suspects, 1 percent of firearm assault suspects, and an even lower percent of homicide suspects, even though they are about 34 percent of the city’s population.

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Being on parole or probation could contribute to an officer’s hands-on-the-wheel request, but drivers’ criminal history is not included in the study’s models.

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The study’s much-cited statistic that black drivers are about 60 percent more likely to hear a phrase from the bottom 10 percent of the disrespect scale is entirely accounted for by the “hands on the wheel” phrase, since there are only eight items on the disrespect list. The next two items on the disrespect list are first names and informal titles. Whites were 4 percent more likely to have a first name used with them, and blacks were 65 percent more likely to have an informal title used with them, by far the greatest discrepancy on the eight-item disrespect scale. An officer who uses “my man” or “bro” with a black driver in Oakland is likely trying to establish rapport through the use of street vernacular, hardly an invidious impulse; black officers were as likely to use such informal titles as white officers.

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Consider again the most disrespectful utterance provided by the researchers:

“Steve, can I see that driver’s license again? It, it’s showing suspended. Is that—that’s you?” In no possible universe with any minimal connection to common sense should that utterance be deemed disrespectful. Why does it get that rating? A first name is used, which is the second most disrespectful item on the researchers’ disrespect scale. “Can I see” is “asking for agency,” the fifth most disrespectful thing an officer can say. Worse, “can I see” is part of a question, and questions are the eighth most disrespectful term on the list. If “can I see that driver’s license?” is now deemed racially disrespectful, it’s hard to see how police officers can do their jobs.

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If police training starts insisting that officers refer to everyone as Mr. and Ms. and scrupulously avoid street appellations, there would be no loss. But it is the disparity in criminal offending and victimization that should concern race researchers, not whether police officers are more likely to repeat words or use “my man” with black drivers.

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