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New Research Shows When Police Stops and Student Discipline Escalate By Race

New research by SPARQ Co-Director Jennifer Eberhardt and colleagues shows when police stops and student discipline are more likely to escalate by race.
Police car

A new study from SPARQ Co-Director Jennifer Eberhardt, Faculty Affiliates Eugenia Rho, Dan Jurafsky, and Nick Camp, Grad Affiliate Maggie Harrington, and former Grad Affiliate Reid Pryzant found that police officers’ first words during traffic stops of Black drivers provide clues as to whether stops might escalate. Linguistic patterns in body-worn camera footage demonstrated that stops that escalated into a search, arrest, or handcuffing were significantly more likely to begin with the officer giving an order. “Rather than using footage as evidence in a particular case, we’re trying to treat footage as data,” Eberhardt said. In another study, 188 Black men listened to recordings of traffic stops and recognized this same pattern. Although none of the stops they listened to resulted in use of force, Black study participants expressed concerns that the majority of stops beginning with officer commands (e.g., “Turn the car off”), rather than reasons for why officers stopped the driver (e.g., expired registration), would escalate. Similarly, George Floyd’s encounter with police on the day of his murder began with orders (e.g., “Keep your hands on the wheel”), and police gave no explanation when they stopped him, despite his expressions of fear. "Many Black people fear the police, even in routine car stops. That fear is a fear that could be stoked or set at ease with the first words that an officer speaks," Eberhardt said, on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Young Black student writing

 In another new study on escalation in another domain, Eberhardt, along with co-authors from UCLA and UC Berkeley Sean Darling-Hammond, Jason Okonofua, and Michael Ruiz, found that student discipline rates not only shift throughout the school year, but also increase more quickly for Black students than white students at key points (e.g., at the start of the academic year, before breaks). "[P]eople… believe that discipline is pretty static and stable, and it’s not. Discipline, and the desire to discipline, can really fluctuate," Eberhardt said. Daily discipline data collected from 61 middle schools showed that by November, the discipline rate was 50 times higher for Black than white students. To capture these large disparities, the research team created a video that shares an audio representation of the data and what students experience. Ultimately, these findings highlight particular points in the year where interventions could be most impactful in reducing racial disparities in school discipline.


Image via Andrea Ferrario / Unsplash

Image via Santi Vedri / Unsplash