An insightful—and witty, from a conservative perspective—article from City Journal on the testing done to try and drive criminal justice policy, which one hopes, after this type of take down, someday abates.
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. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, elicited a huzzah from the press. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and Science, among many other outlets, gave it prominent play. “Police officers are significantly less respectful and consistently ruder toward black motorists during routine traffic stops than they are toward white drivers,” gloated the New York Times.
Reading the coverage, one expected reports of cops cursing at black drivers, say, or peremptorily ordering them around, or using the N-word. Instead, 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.”
The researchers themselves undoubtedly expected more dramatic results. Undaunted by the lackluster findings, they packaged them in the conventional bias narrative anyway, opening their study by invoking the “onslaught of incidents” involving officers’ use of force with black suspects that have “rocked” the nation. A cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement helpfully commented in the San Francisco Chronicle that the study goes beyond individual racism to highlight a “systemic set of practices that has impacts on people’s lives.”
The study is worth examining in some detail as an example of the enormous scientific machinery being brought to bear on a problem of ever-diminishing scope, whether in police departments or in American society generally. The most cutting-edge research designs, computer algorithms, and statistical tools, such as Fisher’s exact tests, Cronbach’s alpha, and Kernel density estimates, are now deployed in the increasingly desperate hunt for crippling white racism, while a more pressing problem—inner-city dysfunction—gets minimal academic attention.
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. Her first study of the department—on racial profiling in police stops—managed to run nearly 400 pages without ever disclosing black and white crime rates in Oakland. (Hint: they are vastly disparate.)
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. The students rated police utterances to white drivers as somewhat more respectful than those to black drivers, though the officers were equally “formal,” as the researchers defined it, with drivers of both races.
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.
Finally, in phase three, the researchers turned their computers loose on all 36,738 officer utterances, using the 22-category rating system. They found that officers’ utterances toward white drivers scored somewhat higher in respect than utterances toward black drivers, even after controlling for whether the stop resulted in a search, citation, arrest, or warning. (The sample size for white arrests and searches was quite small, however: one arrest and two searches; black drivers were 15 times more likely to be arrested than whites.) Black officers scored the same as white officers in respect toward black and white drivers. White drivers were 57 percent more likely than black drivers to hear something from the top 10 percent of the respect categories, and black drivers were 61 percent more likely to hear something from the bottom 10 percent of the disrespect categories.
There is plenty to criticize in the study’s methodology and assumptions. Doing so, however, risks implying that the substantive claims are significant. They are not. Nevertheless, 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.