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Study uses body cameras to show racial disparities in Oakland police behavior

oakland pd stanford body camera study bodycamera
Creative Commons/Daniel Arauz.

As the use of body cameras gains steam in police departments across the country, the public increasingly gains insight into the police officers who wear them. Stanford University psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt and a team of researchers conducted a federally ordered 13-month study of the Oakland Police Department and discovered that African-Americans accounted for 60 percent of police stops in Oakland, while white people comprised only 13 percent.

Eberhardt looked at more than 3,000 videos shot from the officers’ body cameras for the study, as well as data from more than 28,119 traffic and pedestrian stops carried out by 510 police officers recorded between April 1, 2013, and April 30, 2013. It also analyzed 1,000 police reports, surveyed more than 400 Oakland residents, and examined a month of audio recordings for language and tone used by officers.

Related: Reports suggest pervasive infection found in police body cams

The results showed African-American men were more than twice as likely to be arrested after a stop compared to white men. African-Americans were also four times as likely to be searched by police officers than white people were, although they were no more likely to be in possession of anything illegal. In addition, 65 percent of Oakland police officers deemed it necessary to search an African-American person, whereas 77 percent of the officers never did so for a white person.

To fix this racial disparity in police treatment, the team of researchers are developing “computational tools” to help analyze police officers’ verbal interactions with civilians. The tools would be able to examine tone of voice, turns taken in conversations, and other relevant information. According to Eberhardt, most body-worn camera footage from police officers are not analyzed because it is viewed as evidence instead of data. “Evidence can prove liability or innocence in one specific case,” Eberhardt wrote in her the report. “But data can show patterns across incidents, and possibly be used to change those patterns.”

These findings from come as a surprise, especially since the Oakland Police Department had shown consistent signs of improvement since it began testing body-worn cameras in late 2010. The number of use-of-force incidents decreased by 66 percent between 2011 and 2015, from 1,494 to 504.

In December 2014, President Barack Obama announced a plan a plan — the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA’s) Smart Policing Initiative — to award $75 million of federal spending toward providing 50,000 body-worn cameras to police departments nationwide over three years. In the plan’s first year, the Justice Department awarded more than $23 million to 73 police agencies in 32 states for the purchase of body cameras and research into their impact. The Justice Department is also allocating $1.9 million toward researching the impact of body cameras — similar to Standford’s research — with police departments in Miami, Milwaukee, and Phoenix being included.

Expect to see into police departments like never before in the coming years, as body cameras go from a novelty to standard practice.