In these interesting—as in the ancient Chinese curse—times it is becoming a matter of public faith that America’s police are evil, violent racists and brutes, ready to attack, even murder, every innocent citizen they see, but particularly, young, black males. If one casually read some of my series on police issues, such as the current Justine Damond case, one might come away with something of that impression, but a closer reading would reveal something else again.
I have no doubt the overwhelming majority of America’s police officers are women and men of good will, people with their hearts in the right places working a nearly impossible job. Their police agencies, by perhaps the same proportions, are also well-intentioned, seek to be professional and brook no institutional law breaking, sexism or racism. Yet, police officers sometimes fail, mostly because police agencies are limited to recruiting from the human race. Well then, if they’re so well-intentioned, why do you write about cases of police misconduct?
Dedicated cops understand all too well how vital the trust of the public is. They know the only reason they can do their jobs and survive is because most people are willing to obey most laws most of the time. They know bad will is cumulative. They know they need the good will and active support of the public more than the public needs them. Yet police work does breed an “us against them” mentality, if for no reason other than that no one can understand the unique stresses and dangers of the job without having done it. By taking the job, police officers find themselves segregated from the rest of society in more ways that one can easily imagine.
Therefore, it is sometimes difficult for officers to clean their own stables. I’ve always believed we have the police we deserve, so I work to support wrongfully accused officers, as I did in the Freddie Gray and Michael Brown cases, and expose dangerous and incompetent officers, as seems to be the situation in the Damond case. I also exposed an entirely dishonest and immensely dangerous law enforcement agency in the Erik Scott case. Honest officers appreciate the help.
I find myself once again, with the help of the invaluable Heather MacDonald, coming to the aid of police officers everywhere, but starting in Oakland, CA:
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.
My goodness! A scientific study found that? What sort of brutality must the police officers have been foisting on the innocent public?
‘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.
Reality check: police officers working in jurisdictions with large black populations know that speaking to many of them in standard business English would immediately collect charges of “talking down to” them, and racism. However, “my man,” and “real quick” are commonly used in speaking to white people and everyone else. Many of the people with whom the police come into close contact are not terribly interested in accuracy in the propagation of the Queen’s English.
And what was the methodology of this study? Did the researchers speak to every black person coming into contact with Oakland Police officers over several years? Did they conduct exhaustive interviews?
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.
Oh. Out of “36,738 discrete officer utterance,” a group of college students rated 414. College students. What more qualified group for that purpose? Considering they were California students, one can only imagine their boundless respect for the police. Here’s where the researchers obtained the results they wanted even though the first phase blew up in their faces:
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.
Oh, I’m sure if there had been obscenities uttered by the officers, they’d be trumpeted loudly and often. And there was yet a third phase involving computers, so you know the results must be utterly accurate and trustworthy:
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.
Considering what passes for “disrespect” in this study, one might be forgiven for thinking the researchers just a bit biased, even dishonest. Just for fun, what’s the crime rate in Oakland?
In 2015, the last year for which full data are available, Oakland’s violent-crime rate was nearly four times the national average: 1,442 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, compared with 372 violent crimes per 100,000 residents nationwide. Oakland’s violent crime rate was 14 times higher than Palo Alto’s and twice as high as San Francisco’s.
Guess which race is most represented, by an enormous margin, in the ranks of Oakland’s criminals?
By all means, take the link and read the rest of the article. If you think the researcher’s arbitrary and absurd choices for what constitutes disrespectful language are, well, arbitrary and absurd, you haven’t read anything yet. MacDonald is a national treasure.
Do you begin to see, gentle readers, why more and more police agencies are losing experienced and professional officers, and why they’re having enormous difficulty recruiting their replacements? That’s a deadly problem for us all.