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Black drivers receive less respect from police officers, study says

Black drivers were 61 percent more likely to hear words such as “dude” and “bro” and “hands on the wheel” during traffic stops.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Caron Nazario was driving his newly-purchased Chevy Tahoe home when two police officers pulled him over in Windsor, Va., on Dec. 5, 2020.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Caron Nazario was driving his newly-purchased Chevy Tahoe home when two police officers pulled him over in Windsor, Va., on Dec. 5, 2020.Windsor Police Department

A recent American Psychological Association study revealed that police officers speak to Black drivers in a more disrespectful tone during traffic stops than the way they speak to white drivers.

The study analyzed body camera footage from more than 100 police officers and used 250 audio clips from an unnamed mid-sized U.S. city and revealed that officers spoke to Black men in a tone of voice that conveyed less warmth, respect and ease in comparison to white men.

“We were analyzing this footage both to identify challenges with police-community relations and to try to offer some suggestions,” said Nicholas Camp, an assistant professor of organizational studies at the University of Michigan and the lead author of the study.

Lt. Diane Goldstein, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, stressed the importance that research plays in transforming policing so police officers can understand the needs of communities they serve.

“It’s really important to have this very difficult conversation around the issue of race,” Goldstein, a retired police officer, said. “I know it makes law enforcement uncomfortable, but if we don’t squarely face it, we are not going to be able to transform police in the fashion that we should and we aren’t going to be able to protect our communities.”

In a previous study focused on the Oakland, California, area, Camp and other researchers found that compared with white residents, Black community members were 61 percent more likely to hear words such as “dude” and “bro” and “hands on the wheel” during traffic stops.

Another purpose of the study was to show that body camera footage provides essential information about police stops and potential evidence of misconduct.

Body camera footage has played an essential role in U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario’s lawsuit, which is set to go to trial in March 2022. Nazario was driving in uniform toward Petersburg, Virginia, when he saw police officers signaling for him to pull over for having tinted windows and no rear license plate. Trying to find an area with light, the Black and Latino soldier continued driving until he found a well-lit BP gas station.

Soon after he parked, the officers pulled their guns and began shouting commands. Nazario responded with, “What’s going on?”

"What's going on? You're fixin' to ride the lightning, son," Officer Joe Gutierrez said, according to the body camera video. The officers then pepper-sprayed Nazario and knocked him to the ground.

Juanisha Brooks was pulled over and arrested by Virginia State Troopers.Virginia State Police

Jonathan Arthur, Nazario’s lawyer, said Gutierrez “obviously understood the double entendre” of the words “ride the lightning,” as it can mean to deploy a stun gun on an individual or to be executed by electrocution.

“Everything I saw was like watching a train wreck and it just got worse and worse,” he said. “The fact that these guys were willing to behave like this knowing that they were going to be recorded is mind-boggling.” Three videos of body camera footage are included as official filings in Nazario’s case.

Juanisha Brooks, who is Black, was pulled over by a Virginia state trooper in March. The reason the officer cited: a broken taillight. He then accused her of drinking and driving, which was later dispelled by a 0.0 result on a toxicology test.

Body camera footage was released in May and showed that Brooks repeatedly asked why she was being pulled over and was ultimately dragged out of her car by the trooper.

Minnesota state Rep. John Thompson was pulled over July 4 for not having a front license plate and for the way he had pulled off from a light. In body camera footage released July 13, Thompson can be heard accusing the police officer of looking him right in the face and giving him a ticket “for driving while Black.”

“These interactions are becoming very scary, and our perception of racial profiling means nothing until somebody gets killed,” Thompson told NBC News last week. “These traffic stops are turning cars into caskets for young Black men.”

Juanisha Brooks in her office on May 5, 2021 in Fairfax, Va.Katherine Frey / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Repeated incidents like these also contribute to an increasing distrust in law enforcement. Two-thirds of Black Americans don’t trust the police to treat Black and white people equally, according to an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll taken shortly after George Floyd’s death was captured on video.

Anand Subramanian, the managing director at PolicyLink, said this distrust stems from the “deeply anti-Black” system that is law enforcement, mentioning that some of the first police departments evolved directly from slave patrols.

“It starts with the idea that Black folks are inherently violent, that intercommunal violence in Black communities is worse than police violence against Black folks and that Black folks should be viewed with suspicion,” he said.

Due to the rising distrust, Arthur said that whenever a Black client comes to him with a new incident involving police officers, they tend to be angry, but never surprised.

“The distrust that we’ve started sowing in our police departments are going to have some pretty damning consequences because the police need the trust of the community to do their job, and when the community turns on them, it just makes it more dangerous for everyone,” he said.

Arthur also said Black people have been victimized.

“They've come to me and they've been attacked by law enforcement already and they're still willing to put themselves out there and risk further retaliation and further hate,” he said. “And that's an exceptionally heroic thing for these men and women to be doing, and I am grateful to them.”

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