In the U.S., traffic stops are the most common form of encounter between the police and members of the general public. Hundreds of such encounters have escalated into violence, with more than 800 people having been killed after being pulled over in the U.S. since 2017. In the past year, researchers from the University of Michigan and various peer institutions have added to the volume of research in understanding the disparate racial impact of traffic stops, and how they can become violent or fatal.

One of these studies, undertaken by the EMU-based Southeast Michigan Criminal Justice Policy Research Project research team, examined traffic stop data in Ann Arbor between 2017 and 2019 and confirmed that Black drivers were subjected to a significantly higher rate of traffic stops and subsequent searches than their white counterparts. Another study, conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech, the University of Michigan and Stanford University, found that the first 45 words from police officers during a traffic stop can predict the likelihood of those interactions escalating into violence against Black drivers.

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Motivated by calls to de-escalate police encounters with Black drivers, a group of seven researchers from the University of Michigan, Stanford University and Virginia Tech have been analyzing 577 transcripts from police body-worn cameras of traffic stops from a mid-sized city and conducting interviews with a nationally representative sample of Black men to understand how traffic stops escalate. 

The researchers classified these police interaction dialogues by sorting the first 45 words of the interaction into six institutional speech acts: greetings, explaining stop reasons, asking personal details, asking for documentation, giving orders and questioning legitimacy. Their findings revealed that stops which escalated into violence were more likely to be characterized by officers starting off giving orders as opposed to explaining reasons for stops. It also found that Black men were more likely to fear escalation after hearing officers give orders early in the interaction.

Nicholas Camp, U-M organizational studies assistant professor and researcher on this project, focuses on understanding the psychological impact of these dialogues for Black men. In an interview with The Daily, Camp said the researchers leveraged footage of police stops to unveil more nuanced aspects of traffic stops, beyond what administrative data can show. Camp said understanding the emotions at play in these interactions are an important aspect of this research because they can shape the dynamics and outcomes of encounters  between drivers and police. 

Read the complete article in The Michigan Daily