The relationship between a city and its police department is often defined on the streets, where citizens’ contacts with patrol officers leave lasting impacts. And in Oakland, Calif., a new study found that if you are African American and encounter a police officer, there is a 25 percent chance you will be handcuffed, often in front of family or friends, even though you are not being arrested.
Regardless of the area of the city, disproportionate treatment by race was similar and the raw totals were stunning: 2,890 African Americans handcuffed but not arrested in a 13-month period, while only 193 whites were cuffed. When Oakland officers pulled over a vehicle but didn’t arrest anyone, 72 white people were handcuffed, while 1,466 African Americans were restrained.
“I was surprised and troubled by the handcuffing results,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in an interview. “That jumped out…We’re really grappling with questions about what is causing these disparate impacts.”
The fact of racial disparities in police stops is nothing new in departments around the country. Researchers from Stanford University who examined reports on more than 28,000 self-initiated stops by Oakland police from April 2013 through April 2014 found that about 60 percent of people stopped were African Americans, though the city is only about 28 percent African American. But Stanford’s research team, headed by psychologists Jennifer L. Eberhardt and Rebecca C. Hetey, also devised a set of 50 recommendations that Oakland authorities are eager to implement, and which they say will provide a road map for police departments nationwide in how to remedy disparate treatment of minorities.
The recommendations, released to the Oakland City Council and then to the public on Wednesday, instruct Oakland police to expand collection of “stop data” for officers’ interactions with the public, use body-worn camera footage to train and evaluate officers and hire outside researchers to analyze data. They also suggest the department improve feedback channels for the public and for patrol officers to their supervisors and increase social training for officers as well as interactions with communities.
“We hope that the report is a national model,” Schaaf said, “and encourages other cities to ask the same tough questions we’ve been asking ourselves. The report really focuses on how we correct that.”
The Oakland police have lately been in turmoil. Already under a federal court monitor for 13 years for a police brutality and racial profiling scandal, the department’s chief suddenly resigned last week under the cloud of an investigation involving officers having sex with an underaged prostitute, and this week the city council took steps toward the creation of an independent police commission.
But the daily interactions of officers and residents are what typically shape a community’s attitude toward the police, not the political machinations. Stanford psychologist Eberhardt said the statistics about disproportionate handcuffing were echoed by their anecdotal research from the streets. “When you talk to community leaders in Oakland,” Eberhardt said, “often times these stories involved handcuffing. You could just hear it in their voices, it’s one of those things that’s demeaning and humiliating. It’s happening in front of friends and family, and happening when there’s no arrest.”
Regardless of the racial composition of a section of Oakland, the disparities remained. Of vehicle stops, 54 percent of those stopped were African American, and 14 percent were white. In pedestrian stops, 74 percent were black, nine percent white. Blacks were searched in one out of five stops, whites in one out of 20, the data showed. About 15 percent of the stops resulted in an arrest: whites were arrested 278 times, African Americans 3,040 times. Stop, search and arrest data for Asian and Hispanic citizens, who combine to make up more than 40 percent of Oakland’s population, did not differ much from whites.
Police officials have frequently pointed out that officers spend more time in minority communities because more crime is reported there, leading to more interactions and more arrests. “There are a lot of explanations for disproportionality that have nothing to do with bias,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “Police presence is always much higher where there’s a concentration of crime and calls for service.”
Stephens said police departments recognize there can also be implicit bias in how officers approach citizens in minority communities, and that many chiefs have launched training that “helps police officers understand and manage their bias. They want officers to be more forthcoming about the nature of their encounters, explain clearly why someone got stopped. The hope is maybe they won’t handcuff that person. But the reason they do that is safety issues, they have some concern, so they handcuff them.”
The Stanford study did not try to determine reasons why Oakland officers handcuffed so many African Americans, and it noted that in simply stopping black residents, the racial disparities in Oakland were comparable to what research had found in other cities. The authors theorized that Oakland officers “may not be acting based on their own biases,” but rather on what the institutional norm is in the city. The data found that 74 percent of the city’s officers had never handcuffed a white person who wasn’t ultimately arrested, but 72 percent had done so with an African American.
“If officers frequently witness the handcuffing and searching of African Americans,” the report concluded, “this behavior becomes normal, routine, and expected: a script for what is supposed to happen. Decades of research in social psychology and sociology suggest that norms are a significant driver of behavior.”
Assistant Oakland Police Chief Paul Figueroa, an Oakland native, said policing is “not about stopping everybody and hoping to get lucky. Just because you live in a community of color doesn’t mean you should be stopped or handcuffed at high rates. Even if each of the individual stops is legally justified, what is the overall impact of people being handcuffed in the African American community? Are there better strategies we can use?” He noted that then-Chief Sean Whent sent an email to the force in March saying focusing patrol activities on a smaller number of known offenders was more productive than frequent indiscriminate stops.
The Stanford researchers also began looking at body camera footage, cataloguing the language used by officers, a project which is continuing. But of the 400 files reviewed so far, officers are more casual when speaking with African Americans, ask more questions and are more likely to mention probation, while interactions with whites focus more on procedure and explanation of the process. “Using only the words an officer uses during a traffic stop,” the researchers concluded, “we can predict whether that officers is talking to a black person or a white person” with 66 percent accuracy.
Figueroa said “the handcuffing piece” of the Stanford report “just wasn’t on our radar. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar.” He said the report “really does use the data to inform specific recommendations going forward,” such as giving officers individualized feedback on their stops, and using citizen complaint data more effectively. He said he was hearing from police chiefs elsewhere interested in Stanford’s methodology, and also “they are looking at how do I tap into the intellectual resources around me,” using college or specialized researchers to better diagnose problem areas and devise solutions.
Schaaf noted that “our city is getting safer. Violent crime is significantly down in Oakland, where it is up in a lot of cities.” Murders and injury shootings have declined 39 percent in three years, she said, with 23 homicides so far this year, compared with 41 last year in a city with a population of 415,000.
But community relations with police vary “depending on what part of the community we’re talking about,” the mayor said. “It breaks my heart that the appearance of a police officer in some communities brings a feeling of safety and in others a fear and a threat. And that should not be the case.”