Communication Currents

“Do you know why I’ve stopped you?” Traffic stops’ forms and outcomes unpacked

December 1, 2012
Interpersonal Communication

Only recently attracting the attention of communication scholars, the police officer-civilian encounter is, arguably, among the most visibly salient of intergroup settings, this partly due to an officer’s uniform, hairstyle, badge, and array of defensive weaponry, as well as the legal authority to use various levels of physical force if deemed necessary. Furthermore, a traffic stop – an event over 80% of us in the USA has encountered - is the occasion when the public comes face-to-face with officers. These can be very dangerous, and even deadly situations for them and, for civilians, they can result in unfavorable reactions to law enforcement which, if extensive enough can stymie community-oriented policing and efforts at promoting a more crime-free society. In what follows, some background dynamics are introduced, together with studies we designed at increasing understanding of this important interaction. 

Although the media can create and develop our impressions of police officers, the type of past experiences we have had with them, even if vicariously reported by significant others, are not surprisingly associated with people’s general attitudes toward the police. Studies have underscored the role of socio-demographic factors in predicting attitudes toward the police (ATP). Older, female, urban, better-educated, and married respondents manifest more positive views of law enforcement than their social counterparts. But of all these factors, civilians’ race has always been a strong predictor of ATP; Caucasians and Asians have the most favorable images of police, followed by Latinos and Native Americans and, finally, African Americans. Indeed, many African Americans and Latinos contend they are over-stopped, over-searched and over-arrested, with many of the former complaining of being pulled over for simply “driving while black.”  

Given estimates that 97% of American police work involves interacting with the public, it is surprising that the impact ofcommunication on ATP has not been more systematically examined as communication is acknowledged by practitioners as an integral resource that is available to officers. Using different procedures, agencies, and representative samples of different populations, we found that perceptions of how communicatively accommodating officers had been to informants in the past was a better predictor of their evaluations of local law enforcement than age, gender, or ethnicity. Respondents also spontaneously highlighted officers’ communication over any other factor (e.g., more officers on the beat, more minorities and women) when suggesting what improvements should be made to law enforcement services. In a series of other investigations around the world, we found that perceived officer accommodativeness (e.g., listening, taking the civilian’s perspective into account) promoted feelings of public trust which, in turn, increased civilians’ reported willingness to comply and cooperate with law enforcement.

Actual analyses of ongoing interactions with officers in the field are of course somewhat rare. However, with colleagues at the Rand Corporation and the University of Illinois, we analyzed the content of interactions between African American and White police officers and civilians with a representative sample of video-recorded traffic stops in a Midwestern city. Trained coders examined each stop for more than 100 contextual and officer-driver variables.

Among other interracial patterns noted, African American drivers were more likely than White drivers to experience what was labeled “extensive policing.” Here, African American drivers were detained for an average of 2.6 minutes longer than White drivers, with typically more than one police officer present. In addition, they were between three-to-five times more likely than White drivers to be asked to leave the vehicle, asked if they were carrying drugs or weapons, and have themselves, their passengers, and/or their vehicles searched for illegal items. 

For their part, African American drivers were coded as more non-accommodative than whites: less apologetic, courteous, and respectful, and more belligerent. While each party’s accommodativeness predicted the others, intergroup encounters were coded as more non-accommodative than those where both driver and officer were of similar ethnic backgrounds. The inter-ethnic communication climate was found to be characterized by officers listening less, being more indifferent and dismissive, and coded as less approachable, respectful and polite than intra-ethnic situations. In a follow-up study with a wider sample of videotaped traffic stops sampled a year later, we also found strong evidence of an interaction effect between officers’ and drivers’ race not evident in the previous data. More specifically, White officers engaged in more extensive policing (e.g., vehicle searches and longer stops) with African American drivers, a pattern that was not evident when African American officers stopped White drivers.

The question then arises as to whether such findings would generalize to other ethnic minorities, such as Latinos, in another quite different locale in one our western states. As above, this group has generally unfavorable views of law enforcement, and there are data that non-lethal use of force (e.g., tasers) are used on them more than on White suspects. With Doug Bonilla, Dan Linz, and Michelle Leah Gomez, we analyzed the content of video-recorded stops of Latino and Non-Latino White male drivers with Non-Latino White male officers. Ethnic identities were evaluated primarily by surname and accent to provide indicators of Latino or Non-Latino origins. 

A methodological concern, unlike previous studies, was that a police supervisor screened them before passing them on to us. Nonetheless, four key findings were revealed: 

  • Driver ethnicity did not predict extensive policing, although Latinos were accommodated to less by officers than their non-Latino counterparts. 
  • Heavily Hispanic-accented drivers were coded as recipients of more extensive policing than other drivers, and were also accommodated to less by officers.
  • Officers accommodated less when giving citations/arrests, as well as during extensive policing; drivers accommodated less under both these circumstances. 
  • Officers accommodated more with more accommodative drivers and non-accommodated more with more dismissive drivers. 

Even with pre-screening, once again, driver ethnicity and, this time, accentedness emerged as critical elements of a traffic stop. But all this presents a paradox. Traffic stops can be lethal in terms of officer homicides: officers are forced to practice self-protective and non-accommodative stances to remain safe. Hence, so-called “routine” traffic stops have now been re-designated as “in determinant risk” stops. Officers are aware of data that would characterize murdered officers in traffic stops as accommodating ones! 

Interpersonal accommodation is, thereby, a two-edged sword: It can induce civilian trust, but could also affect officer safety through complacency. When civilians perceive this defensive or non-accommodative demeanor, they can easily and quickly misinterpret the motives and behavior of police officers and feel unjustly treated, contributing potentially yet further to their negative images of law enforcement. The communicative dilemma, then, is for officers in ambiguously-risky situations to enact a balance of accommodativeness and non-accommodativeness. For civilians, these findings suggest a reappraisal of their emotions, cognitions, and talk when being traffic stopped. While the situation can be sometimes riddled with uncertainty about the cause of the stop and also be very anxiety-provoking, one must think of how officers might be viewing and reacting to this same situation; you are an unknown commodity to them. Civilians adopting an accommodating stance have been shown to be related to reciprocal accommodation by officers and sometimes to reduced personal and financial consequences. 

Clearly this kind of applied and theoretically-driven research does have important implications for officer training. That said, interventions should be bi-lateral as citizen education (e.g., in schools or for learner drivers) is sorely lacking in educating the public about the communicative demands and dilemmas placed on officers. Many scholars and police practitioners recognize police-civilian cooperation as fundamental to crime prevention and, for effective policing to succeed, it is imperative that it be understood as the responsibility of both law enforcement and the community. 

About the author (s)

Howard Giles

University of California, Santa Barbara

Professor