Human Behavior Experiments Black Panthers and the Police

About a human behavior experiment to determine whether having a Black Panthers bumper sticker results in more police harassment.



Title of Experiment: Bumper Stickers and the Cops

Conducted by: F. K. Heussenstamm at California State College, Los Angeles, 1969

Reported in: Trans-action, 8 (February, 1971), 32-33

Object: To determine whether Black Panther party bumper stickers resulted in harassment by law enforcement officers.

The Experiment: After police and Black Panther party members clashed during the summer of 1969, party members at California State College began to complain that law enforcement officers were harassing them. To find out whether the black students' complaints were justified, 15 students--5 white, 5 black, and 5 of Mexican descent--were chosen to participate in a study. The participants all drove to and from school every day, for an average round trip of roughly 10 mi. They drove different kinds of cars and they themselves looked different, long-haired and short-haired, hair processed and natural. All made sworn statements that they had not received moving traffic violations during the previous year.

The experiment in which they participated was simple. A Black Panther bumper sticker in Day-Glo orange and black paint was stuck on the rear bumper of each participant's car, and the experimenter began counting daily traffic citations. After a student received three citations, he or she was automatically dropped from the study.

Conclusions: Within 17 days, when the fund for paying traffic fines was exhausted, the 15 participants had piled up 33 citations, ranging from "incorrect lane change" to "following too closely" to "driving too slowly in the high-speed lane of the freeway." One student was cited three times by the fourth day of the experiment. Three others got three citations within the first week. One student got his second citation on his way to pay the fine for his first. Citations were given equally, regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, or personal appearance. Only once did police refer to the bumper sticker; on that occasion, the driver was quizzed at length about why she supported the Black Panther party's "criminal activity."

Heussenstamm took into account the possibility that participation in the experiment affected the students' driving. He noted that they became "nervous" and "edgy" and reported feeling uncomfortable when they were driving. Nevertheless, he concluded that "it is statistically unlikely that this number of previously √ęsafe' drivers could amass such a collection of tickets without assuming real bias by police against drivers with Black Panther bumper stickers."

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