What This Body Cam Study Says About Racial Bias

by Mia Mercado

Talking about racism within the criminal justice system is, to put it simply, hard. It’s hard in the way we can’t seem to agree as a society that it exists in the first place. It’s hard in the way that racism, overall, is difficult to pinpoint in its entirety. Most often, it’s hard in the way we repeatedly hear stories about police shootings of unarmed people of color and are too often left to wonder, “How did we get here?” One new study shows the racial disparities in how cops treat people and works to answer that question.

This new study from Stanford University, published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, examines police body camera footage to analyze the everyday interactions cops have with the communities they serve. The study examined almost 1000 police traffic stops occurring over the course of a month in Oakland, California. Using transcripts of this body cam footage, the study specifically compared how officers interacted with white people and black people. Study participants read these raw transcripts, which did not specify race or identity of either the driver or the officer. Participants then judged the officers’ respectfulness toward the driver using multiple criteria, like formality and friendliness. Researchers then analyzes these rating to determine whether racial disparities seemed to exist within these more common police and civilian interactions.

Their findings? Through these metrics, police officers were found to speak significantly less respectfully to black people than they were to white people.

Formality, Politeness, and The Language Officers Used Depending on Drivers’ Race

Overall, the study found that black drivers were 61 percent more likely to hear one of the statements participants determined as being the least respectful. However, officers were 57 more likely to use one of statements deemed “most respectful” by participants with white drivers. When it comes to something as simple as how an officer addressed a driver, white drivers were more likely to be addressed more formally with a title like “sir” or “ma’am.” Black drivers were often addressed more informally using titles like “dude” or “my man.”

Those seemingly small differences in language also translated to larger disparities, like reassuring safety. Officers were more likely to show concern for the safety of a driver if he or she was white. However, black drivers were more commonly told to keep their hands on the wheel, implying that the officer was most concerned with his or her own safety.

A second study conducted of the more than 30,000 individual statements officers made at these traffic stop yielded similar results, showing that respectfulness of the officer varied depending on the driver’s race. As the overall study states in summation, even after for controlling for factors like the officer’s race, how severe the infraction was, and where a driver was stopped, black drivers were consistently spoken to with significantly less respect than white driver.

How This Feeds Into a Larger Problem

Previous studies have found huge racial disparities in how police officers use force. In a report from Vox, police were found to have killed a disproportionate number of black people, according to 2012 data from the FBT. Despite making up 13 percent of the overall population, black people accounted for 31 percent of the people police killed in 2012. In turn, this means black people are far more likely than their white peers to be killed by a police officer.

The criminal justice system as a whole has a race problem. If you want proof that systemic racism exists, look no further than the disproportionate rates at which people of color are imprisoned and the severity with which they are punished. Black people are 12 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of drug-related crimes than white people, despite black and white people using drugs at roughly the same rate. Black men are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than the overall population. (700 of every 100,000 Americans overall are in jail while the same is true for over 4,000 of every 100,00 black men.)

What We Can Do About It

Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that this disparity exists. We, as a society, cannot start to solve a problem if we can’t agree on whether or not the problem is there to begin with. When you look at the raw data, like this recent study from Stanford in addition to overall statistics on race and the criminal justice system, it’s difficult to deny that our society treats people of color — black people more specifically — differently.

We need to acknowledge the importance of Black Lives Matter, both as a movement and as a message. As it stands, when you look at it statistically, we are not a society that values every life equally. We cannot ignore that fact if we want to move forward. We cannot dilute our cultural conversations about institutional racism if we want to work toward true equality. This starts by acknowledging the results of this recent study for what they are: evidence of the fact that racial bias in our systems still very much exists.