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For Black drivers, a police officer's first 45 words are a sign of what's to come


Black drivers are disproportionately stopped by police officers across the U.S. A growing body of research shows Black drivers are also more likely to be searched or arrested. Scientists are trying to understand how and why some traffic stops escalate, and they say important clues can be found in the first 45 words spoken by the officer. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: When a police officer walked up to George Floyd in May of 2020, Floyd was in his car. Jennifer Eberhardt is a social psychologist at Stanford University. She says while millions of people know how Floyd was killed after police pulled him from the car...

JENNIFER EBERHARDT: Very few people are familiar with what happened before he was removed.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Body cam video shows that the initial contact with police came when an officer walked up and tapped on the car's window.



GEORGE FLOYD: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Stay in the car. Let me see your other hand.

FLOYD: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Let me see your other hand.

EBERHARDT: Floyd apologizes to the officers who stand outside his car window. Floyd requests the reason for the stop. He pleads. He explains. He follows orders. He expresses fear, right?


FLOYD: What do I do?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Put your hand up there.

EBERHARDT: Every response to Floyd is an order.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This pattern of abrupt orders and no explanations also shows up in a study Eberhardt and some colleagues just did, comparing police car stops that escalated with those that didn't.

EBERHARDT: Given the racial disparities in who is stopped and searched and handcuffed and arrested, we wanted to focus on Black drivers in particular.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She and some colleagues got body cam footage of routine traffic stops in one racially diverse, mid-sized U.S. city. For privacy reasons, they won't say which one. They examined over 500 stops of Black drivers and compared the first moments of those that ended with a search, handcuffing or arrest with stops that didn't go that direction. It turns out there was a clear difference in the first 45 words spoken by the police officer. Eugenia Rho is a researcher at Virginia Tech.

EUGENIA RHO: Something really striking that we found is that stops that escalate are nearly three times more likely to begin with the officer giving an order to the driver.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Stops that escalate are also less likely to start with the officer giving a reason for the stop. And Black men seem well aware of this because when the researchers asked nearly 200 Black men to listen to audio from the start of police stops...

RHO: We found that the officers' initial 45 words really significantly swayed Black male participants' perception of the officer and their anticipation about how the stop would end, including possible use of force.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Tracey Meares reviewed it for the journal. She's a professor at Yale Law School. She says if so much can be gleaned from just the first 45 words...

TRACEY MEARES: You know, it's possible that that's also telling us that that officer had other motivations for stopping the person in the first place.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Especially if the officer doesn't explain why. Meares points out that in the one-month period covered by this study, police officers in this undisclosed city stopped more than twice as many Black drivers as white drivers, and stops of Black drivers were far more likely to escalate.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.


Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.