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Traffic Stop Language

Eugenia Rho and her research colleagues have demonstrated in a recent study that the verbal approach of officers during vehicle stops of Black drivers plays a large part in the outcome of those encounters. It’s not really news and confirms what many of us assume, but it’s always good to have empirical data.

Rho, a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech and leader of the Society, AI, and Language (SAIL) research lab, co-authored a peer-reviewed paper, available in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, that explains how crucial an officer’s first words, first 45 to be specific, can be. When officers began with commands rather than reasons, the situation is more likely to escalate. Rho asserts that these cases---among the more than 500 stops studied---have a distinct “linguistic signature,” mostly meaning that officers bark orders instead of providing reasons for the stop. For example, after Floyd was approached, twenty talking turns occurred in less than thirty seconds. The police took nine turns. They were all commands. Floyd took eleven turns that were apologies, question asking, and pleas. We know the result. In the research sample, less than one percent of the escalated stops involved non-Black drivers.

The research perhaps has value in informing police training in de-escalation practices. Rho hopes that such work helps to improve overall relations between Black communities and law enforcement. I caution against an embrace of linguistic determinism. Thomas Lane is not in prison because he used language that caused his downfall. Thomas Lane is in prison because he is a racist who used language coupled with racist action that caused his downfall. Now did previous language make Lane a racist? Or was Lane already a racist who adopted racist language that made him continue to be the kind of racist who would use the language coupled with racist action that caused his downfall. And so on…and back…and back. I suppose we will never know.

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