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How Oakland police cut traffic stop numbers by 40% with a simple checkbox

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Award-winning Stanford University social psychologist Professor Jennifer Eberhardt has worked with the Oakland Police Department for a number of years to analyse racial profiling data and help mitigate officers acting on their unconscious bias.

Speaking on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show, Eberhardt described how Stanford’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions (SPARQ) researchers helped the department cut down its traffic stop numbers.

“The big concern was ... police officers were stopping people who were not involved in ... serious criminal activity,” Eberhardt said.

“There were thousands of people who were stopped who ended up having minor traffic violations rather than some serious crime that they had committed, and so they wanted to try to cut down on those numbers.”

Watch the full Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt Global Change Agents interview here

The suggested solution was remarkably simple. A question was added to the form officers were required to fill out when performing a stop: “Was this stop intelligence-led? Yes or no.”

Stops made by the Oakland Police Department plummeted to 19,000 in 2018, down from 32,000 the year prior. Photo: Getty Images

The question referred to whether the officer had evidence the person had been involved in specific criminal activity. Officers had been told the department was prioritising intelligence-led spots and de-prioritising stops for minor violations, such as a broken tail light.

The question was designed to slow officers down to focus on the reasons why they were performing a stop. Eberhardt said people are more likely to act on their biases when they are in a heightened state and feel they need to respond quickly.

“There was an over-40% drop in the number of stops by simply adding this question that caused them to pause whether the stop was a good stop and whether it was a priority stop,” she said.

Data from the Oakland Police Department shows the total number of discretionary stops fell to 19,900 in 2018 from 31,528 the year prior — a 37% decrease. From 2017 to December 2018, the overall percentage of intelligence-led stops increased to 31% from 27%.

“The Oakland Police Department is a leader in the country as it relates to stop data collection and bias based policing,” an Oakland Police Department public information officer said in a statement.

“Oakland Police Department is determined to eliminating any form of racial profiling as well as reducing crime and serving the community through fair and professional, high-quality policing services.

“This commitment requires the Oakland Police Department to continually detect, assess, and address the impacts of racial disparities against the measure of constitutionality and legitimacy of policing when serving the Oakland community.”

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