New Study Shows Oakland Cops Are More Racist When Tired or Stressed

When officers skip their meal breaks, blacks are targeted even more disproportionately than usual.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC)

A recently published study, “Working to Close the Gap: How Stress and Fatigue Impact Racial Disparities in Traffic Stops by Oakland Police,” reveals an unexpected twist on the kinds of systemic social injustices inflicted daily against African Americans living in Oakland.

The study — written by researcher and recent Mills College grad Meghan Hunt to cap her master of public policy and published last week by the Oakland Police Department (OPD) Office of the Inspector General — reviews 10,624 officer-initiated stops conducted by OPD patrol officers, from January 2016 through October 2016.

Hunt’s analysis reveals that at times when police are likely stressed and fatigued, officers stop, search and handcuff African Americans at higher rates than people of other races.

In other words, cops are more racist when they’re stressed.

As Hunt notes in her study, “My findings show that officers stop African Americans at higher rates during the middle of their shifts. This indicates that there may be events during the day that impact officer behavior, contributing to the observed racial disparities.”

10-Hour Shifts

The average OPD officer already starts their day relatively racistly: in the first hour of their shift, 52 percent of traffic stops are of black people. From the get-go, this is already grossly disproportionate compared to the overall population — 28 percent of Oakland is black.

Courtesy of Meghan Hunt / Oaklandnet

Most Oakland police officers work 10-hour shifts. They are supposed to take a 30-minute break; however, it is common to skip the break. Hunt’s analysis of the data reveals what happens when officers work straight through their 10-hour shift without taking a break. By the fifth hour of continuous duty, the rate at which blacks are pulled over increased to 66 percent of all traffic stops. The effect shown in her study correlates to how long the officer has been working their shift. Time of day is irrelevant.

The first stop of an African American person leads to 35 percent of those stops being searched and 29 percent handcuffed. By the third stop of a day, 48 percent of African Americans are searched, and 42 percent are handcuffed. For whites, rates of search and handcuffing stay the same for the first and third stops.

Meanwhile, the rate at which officers stop whites and people of other races remains flat for the entire 10-hour shift.

It’s not just length of shift that makes a difference. Another stressful aspect of the job is how many traffic stops an officer makes in a day. On average, an officer makes less than one stop per shift. Most of an officer’s day is spent answering 911 emergencies and other service calls. On the rare occasion when an officer makes more than one stop in a day, the effect of that cumulative stress is expressed in increasingly higher rates of targeting black people.

When an officer makes three stops in a day, this effect is striking. The first stop of an African American leads to 35 percent being searched and 29 percent handcuffed. By the third stop of a day, 48 percent of African Americans are searched, and 42 percent are handcuffed.

For whites, rates of search and handcuffing stay the same for the first and third stop and actually decrease for the second stop.

Courtesy of Meghan Hunt / Oaklandnet

Stressed = More Racist

While correlation doth not equal causation, the obvious explanation for this racist behavior is not difficult to suss out. Namely: five hours into their shift, cops are stressed. And they still have five more hours to go before signing off. Grumpy cop!

As an officer gets tired, or if they are stressed out by multiple traffic stops, the specter of implicit bias rears its ugly head. In those moments of snap decision making—the sorts of interactions an officer faces every day on the job—the grumpy officer is shown to revert to an innate fear and trepidation of the African American.

Hunt connects her research to the growing body of evidence that people are less able to control their implicit biases and unconscious stereotypical thinking when they are stressed, hungry or fatigued.

Ideally, officers would take their prescribed 30-minute meal break, but the OPD is severely short staffed, and officers are perpetually behind in answering service calls. As Hunt notes in her paper, “My review of reported meal and coffee breaks found that officers do not take dedicated breaks during their shift: on days officers made stops, less than 2 percent had taken a meal break.”

As Meghan explained to me, when an officer takes their break, they must call in to go off duty. The other officers hear this over the radio. Everyone knows who is taking a break. There’s pride in working hard and not going on breaks. A culture has developed of working straight through the 10 hours.

The consequences of skipping lunch become unfathomably destructive.

On a day-to-day basis, this brand of subtle racism is impossible to see, especially when layered upon multitudinous strata of implicit and explicit racism. However, within this robust data set, the injustice becomes evident.

The bias of stress and fatigue is layered upon an existing panoply of known and unknown biases—yet another catalyst that leads to blacks getting pulled over and arrested at higher rates than proportional to their percentage of the population. More African Americans indebted to the system through citations/tickets. More incarcerated African Americans. More African Americans murdered by cops at traffic stops gone awry. Multiply these fungry micro injustices by decades, by the reverberative effect on families and communities, so on and so forth. The consequences of skipping lunch become unfathomably destructive.

Since the 2003 Negotiated Settlement Agreement (you think the OPD is bad now?), the OPD has attempted to mitigate implicit bias. Over 90 percent of OPD personnel have been given implicit-bias training (one wonders why it isn’t 100 percent?). So these 10,000+ stops most likely represent the OPD on their historically best behavior! If stops peaked at 66 percent of blacks during this time, imagine a few years back, when everyone was a lot less sensitive to this. Before the awareness raised by Black Lives Matter, et al.

Racism Prophylaxis

Meghan Hunt’s best suggestions toward mitigating this dynamic aren’t contingent on further officer training. The most obvious place to start is to compel officers to take their meal breaks. Instead of harassing and possibly killing someone in a low-blood-sugar-induced moment of racial panic, GO GET A BURRITO! Or meditate. Or whatever it takes to take the edge off. Racism prophylaxis, if you will.

Her next suggestion, though, might be even more effective in reducing overall racist policing. In police parlance, Meghan’s suggestion is to “shift from discretionary to intelligence-based stops.” Translation: Oakland cops will no longer be directed to pull people over for minor infractions, such as a broken taillight or an expired registration. Making a stop would require that the suspect had committed an actual moving violation or that the officer had information/evidence (a.k.a. “intelligence”) of criminal activity.

The reality is that you can’t trust the cops to use their own judgement to go “fishing” (as Meghan puts it), because the numbers show that in practice, fishing expeditions disproportionally target blacks. So take this prerogative away and require an objective basis to pull someone over instead of some bullshit probable cause they make up on the spot or fabricate after the fact. Meghan Hunt explains:

“One of the recommendations in my report was to consider how traffic stops are made. I spoke with [OPD] Lieutenant Bolton and one way that the police department makes traffic stops is discretionary. Police officers see an infraction and decide to make a stop, and that can be anything like an expired license plate, broken taillight…all the way to something that poses a significant safety risk.
He describes those lower-level things as casting a wide net of making a lot of stops and hoping that one of those stops is the right stop — that it reveals a weapons charge or leads to a bigger finding. But one of my recommendations from my report and one of the things the department has starting to work on is to make more stops based on intelligence. Making stops based on significant public-safety risks and goals. So that’s one thing the police department is doing, is working more toward making those intelligence-based stops rather than those discretionary stops, which may be more influenced by implicit bias.”

The study itself has been vetted by the Office of the Inspector General and accepted by the OPD. Which means it can’t be summarily ignored.

“The main role of [the Oakland Police Department office of the Inspector General] is to generate findings from their data and recommend policy solutions within the department…They presented this in their findings for their last quarterly report, and then for them, to see what’s feasible and they can do within a limited budget.”

Reducing the number of discretionary stops not only decreases a racist officer’s overall number of racist choice points but also serves to temper officer stress, which, as this study shows, makes officers act even more racist against African Americans.

Ideally, officers wouldn’t be racist at all. But let’s not get too crazy here! In the very least, keeping them at their racist baseline through their entire shift would be a major improvement.