Even in something as ordinary as a traffic stop, Black people and white people have very different experiences with the police. Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies Nicholas Camp investigates the way these routine interactions can erode community trust and how they can be repaired.
LSA: Has your research pointed to any differences in the way police interact with Black communities compared to white communities, and how do these differences translate into trust between police and communities they serve?
Nicholas Camp: Black and white Americans have quite different experiences with the police, even in what we consider routine interactions. Take the traffic stop, for example, the most common way people come into contact with the police. After looking at millions of traffic stops across the country, we found Black drivers are more likely to be stopped for minor equipment violations—a broken taillight or expired registration—than white drivers. For Black drivers in those interactions, these reasons can seem like a pretext for harassment or searching for evidence of a more serious crime.
We also looked at body camera footage from an entire month of traffic stops in one department, and found that the officers’ language and tone of voice diverged across race. In most encounters, officers communicate pretty respectfully with drivers they stop, but we consistently found they used more respectful language and a more welcoming tone towards white drivers.
Especially in light of the instances of police violence we see on the news, these discrepancies might seem small, but these differences in routine encounters can snowball over time and be really consequential for peoples’ trust in the police.
To illustrate this, we asked community members to listen to clips of officers talking with either white or Black drivers, but we edited the clips so they couldn’t tell whether the officer was talking to a white or Black driver. Even when participants didn’t know officers were talking to Black drivers, they felt that something was off, and the differences in officers’ communication led community members of all races to be less trusting of the police.
So, these seemingly mundane interactions can play a big role in eroding police-community trust.
LSA: Is race a stronger predictor of police–community strife than, say, economic status or political affiliation or other social identities?
NC: This is a tricky question for a couple of reasons. First, much of what we know about police encounters comes from police data, so oftentimes we’re in the dark about citizens’ economic status or other aspects of their identity. Second, racial inequality in the criminal justice system is intertwined with inequality in economic opportunity, neighborhood resources, and so many other areas of society. I will say that we see an influence of race in police–community interactions, even when we attempt to statistically control for things like area crime rate or income.
But, in the bigger scheme of things, I think we gain a lot more traction when we focus on differences in Black and white citizens’ experiences; racial inequity in other aspects of American life is part of the problem, and not just something to control for in analysis.
LSA: In national conversations about police violence, there seem to be two systems of thought: that police violence stems from individual bad apples or police violence reflects systemic racism that can only be reformed by defunding police. Does either theory get it right?
NC: Both perspectives capture important views on policing. Officers are individuals, and a few officers often compose the bulk of police complaints. On the other hand, officers are extensions of their departments, and act on behalf of institutions.
To reform policing, I would argue that neither view is sufficient. If you remove individual officers without changing policies, such as those directing officers to conduct stops for broken taillights, you’re going to end up with the same disparities. If you focus on policy without the people enforcing it, you can miss the very human aspects of police encounters, such as the ways officers communicate, that are essential for trust. I think we need a “yes, and” perspective rather than “either or.” Racial inequity is an individual and an institutional problem and needs individual and institutional reform.
LSA: Are there reforms that lead to fewer violent encounters between police and citizens that can help to build or repair community trust?
NC: Stereotypes are quickly activated, and take time to override. An officer might perceive an unarmed Black person as armed, and then recognize what they thought was a gun is really a cell phone or a wallet. So one simple intervention has been to train officers to give themselves more time to counter their gut impressions.
I’m more interested in reforms that look at the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Some research has found that when citizens feel that the police treat them respectfully and fairly, they are more likely to cooperate with law enforcement and even more likely to obey the law. The question becomes how to change that relationship. Training officers in procedural justice, which includes giving community members voices and clearly explaining officers’ behavior, actually reduces complaints against the police.
My research suggests we can pay more attention to how officers communicate in routine interactions. The common thread here is that I think we need to think of policing as a relationship, not just a series of decisions, which opens new ways to intervene.
LSA: You ran a series of experiments in which you manipulated Black and white faces as a way to gauge the way people’s brains habituate over time. Can you describe what you found in terms of racial bias?
NC: One question I had about racial divisions in our country is how deep they run. Can they literally affect the way we see others? We examined this question by asking white people to view sets of Black and white faces in an MRI scanner. The brain responds less and less to stimuli it sees as the same, so we wanted to see if the threshold for seeing people as more similar or more different differed when people saw Black versus white faces.
We used photo morphing to manipulate how Black and white faces appeared, then measured our participants’ neural response. We found white participants’ became habituated to even dissimilar Black faces much more quickly than to white faces. In their minds’ eye, the Black faces looked more alike.
This was a pretty narrow lab study, but you can imagine situations where these biases can have life-changing consequences—when police officers identify suspects, or when eyewitnesses choose individuals from a lineup. We’re now trying to figure out how to address this problem using social psychology. For example, can having a broader group identity, like a hometown or a school, influence the way we see others? We’re testing whether this can reverse the neural biases we found.