Black Drivers Can Predict Traffic Stop Outcome Based On An Officer’s First 45 Words

Black drivers, keep your ears open.

Listening to an officer’s first 45 words after being stopped may determine how the encounter will end.

According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, civilians who are approached by officers uttering commands such as “Keep your hands on the wheel” or “Turn the car off” usually experience situations that escalate to being searched, handcuffed, or arrested.

“The first 45 words, which is less than 30 seconds on average, spoken by a law enforcement officer during a car stop to a Black driver can be quite telling about how the stop will end,” said Eugenia Rho, a researcher at Virginia Tech.

Such findings resulted from analyzing police body-cam footage from 577 stops involving Black drivers and about 200 officers. The study occurred over one month and examined a medium-sized populated city that is racially diverse.

Drivers involved in these stops seemed cooperative and weren’t found to have contributed to any escalation. Researchers asked 188 Black men to listen to recordings of the earliest moments of the stops.

“When officers began with orders without reasons, Black male participants predicted that the stop would escalate in over 84% of those cases,” Rho said.

Part of the study also analyzed the first moments of George Floyd’s encounter with police officers in 2020. Floyd was found to have followed orders, pleading in fear multiple times. Every response to Floyd within the first 27 seconds was an order, and all commands were given without explanation. Floyd’s encounter paralleled the escalation in the study.

During the one-month duration of the study, 588 Black drivers were stopped in the city compared to only 262 white drivers. Over 15% of Black drivers experienced escalated outcomes that resulted in a search, handcuffing, or arrest, compared to white drivers, where less than 1% experienced such outcomes.

The American Civil Liberties Union noted the rights of civilians during public traffic stops. Drivers have the right to remain silent from answering questions that include where they are coming from, their destination, what they are doing, and where they live. Civilians are not required to consent to a search of themselves or their belongings. If a civilian ever feels their rights were violated, they should write down details of what they remember and any information about the officers, including their badges and patrol car numbers and their agency.