What Can We Learn from Body Cameras?

New research shows racial disparities in the respect officers show motorists.

Posted Jun 13, 2017

One argument in favor of criminal justice reform points to gross racial disparities in the ways the system touches Americans' lives. Widespread coverage of shootings of unarmed black teenagers has cast a bright light on the issue over the past several years. One underlying factor has been the increased availability of video documenting police interactions with community members. This is due, in large part, to the ubiquity of camera phones.

Many have called for increased mandatory use of police body cameras in the hope that more footage would allow for improved relations between the police and the communities they serve. A team of researchers out of Stanford has just published a paper analyzing a month's worth of Oakland Police Department body camera footage. Their findings would appear to add even more fuel to the reformer's fire.

Source: Evergreen2005/Flickr

This new research provides data to corroborate what many have been saying for years: black drivers are treated differently. The Stanford team employed sophisticated methods from computational linguistics to analyze documented interactions between Oakland police officers and black and white motorists during routine traffic stops throughout the month of April, 2014. They found that officers' utterances were significantly less respectful towards black motorists.

This disparity is not explained by the formality of officers' language. They spoke in similarly formal terms to both black and white motorists. Nor is it explained by the severity of the offenses for which people were stopped. The results were unchanged when the researchers controlled for severity of offense. The disparity is also not explained by the end result of the traffic stop. Officers were not less respectful just to those they ended up searching or arresting. And the officer's race did not contribute to the effect.

The researchers note one particularly troubling implication of this data. "These disparities could have adverse downstream effects, as experiences of respect or disrespect in personal interactions with police officers play a central role in community members’ judgments of how procedurally fair the police are as an institution, as well as the community’s willingness to support or cooperate with the police." If officers are less respectful to blacks than they are to whites, this is likely to make the criminal justice system look less fair. And it can erode the trust between police and the black community. Which, in turn, can make it more difficult to serve and protect this portion of the American citizenry.

Of course, this data does not come out of left field. There is even a familiar name for the general set of issues this research addresses: "driving while black." The Stanford team has not uncovered a surprising, new disparity, so much as presented formal evidence in favor of one many people have been complaining about for a long time. It casts more glow on a well worn, and pressing set of issues.

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