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Teens say stop-and-frisk an everyday reality in Boston

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Teens say stop-and-frisk an everyday reality in Boston
CJ Victor and Anthony Hicks, both youth organizers at the Center for Teen Empowerment, say they’ve frequently been stopped and searched by Boston police, although neither has carried illegal drugs or weapons. (Banner photo) (Photo: Banner photo)

The last time Anthony Hicks was stopped by the police was two weeks ago, as he and his brother crossed Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan Square. It began with a hand on his shoulder.

“I felt someone grab me,” he said. “My first instinct was to turn around and throw a punch, but they said, ‘It’s the police.’ They patted me down, went through my pockets and told me to stomp my feet.”

Hicks, who will begin his freshman year at Boston University this month, said neither he nor his brother were doing anything suspicious before the stop, though police told him the bulge in his brother’s pants from his Samsung cellphone looked suspicious.

Like many black Boston teens, Hicks says he can’t remember how many times he’s been stopped by police, but says it’s way more than 20. Police have never found any illegal substances or weapons on him, but he is often searched, although he says he has never consented to a search.

When he asks why he’s stopped, there’s always a reason, but Hicks says it’s rarely convincing.

“They try to think of a reason on the spot,” he says. “They say there was a robbery at Ashmont, but you’re in Mattapan Square.”

Hicks’ experience of being stopped is not unique for black teens in Boston. At a recent police-youth dialogue organized by Teen Empowerment, where Hicks works as a youth organizer, many teens cited stop-and-frisk as a major problem. And with much of the nation focusing on police practices in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer gunned down an unarmed black teen in August, issues of racial profiling and police misconduct are being aired in the opinion pages of newspapers across the country.

City Councilor Tito Jackson says he hears complaints about stop-and-frisk from constituents, although he says the issue is probably not as prevalent as it was in the 1980s, when heavy-handed police response to the Charles Stuart murder case highlighted widespread violations of black teens’ 4th Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure.

“Random stop-and-frisk tactics are not part of a modern-day policing strategy,” Jackson said. “It makes the community less safe in that you end up harming valuable relationships the police need to keep communities safe.”

Boston Police spokeswoman Rachel McGuire said the practice of stop-and-frisk, stopping people without a reasonable suspicion that they have broken a law or are about to do so, is against department policy.

“In order to stop somebody, you need reasonable suspicion,” she said.

If an officer has reasonable suspicion he or she can pat down a suspect to find a concealed weapon. In order to conduct a non-consensual search of a suspect, an officer must have probable cause to arrest the suspect.

“It’s a good practice to let someone know why they’re being detained, to say ‘this is what happened, this is why I’m stopping you,’” McGuire said. “At some point, it does have to be written up into a report.”

Officers are required to record their stops into the department’s database of Field Interaction/ Observation/ Encounter Reports, often referred to as FIOs. After a teen is stopped, his or her name, the location and date, as well as other individuals in the vicinity can be entered into the database.

“Our officers are very well-trained in 4th Amendment rights,” McGuire said. “Through the academy, you are trained daily on Constitutional rights and there are specific trainings on FIOs as well.”

Teens interviewed by the Banner said they were aware that police do not have the right to stop them without reasonable suspicion or search them without probable cause, but said police routinely violate their own policies.

C.J. Victor, a Teen Empowerment organizer who will be attending Mass Bay Community College in the fall, said he never consents to a search.

“When I got into high school, I learned what my rights are,” he said.

His knowledge of constitutional law hasn’t kept him out of harm’s way, though. In the South End, Victor was stopped when police were looking for an armed-robbery suspect.

“Of course I matched the guy’s description,” he said with a note of sarcasm. “I had on khaki pants, blue and orange sneakers, a blue and orange shirt and a blue and orange hat. I said, ‘he wore the same, exact outfit?’”

Victor and Hicks said officers routinely curse at them and often use physical coercion.

“They shove you,” Hicks said. I’ve been thrown against brick walls. They always swear at you. They say ‘you little f—-ers need to stop what you’re doing.”

Both said stop-and-frisk tactics are counterproductive.

“It doesn’t build trust,” Victor commented. “We don’t trust them, and they don’t trust us. The officers who stop you and frisk you, they’re not here to help you.”

Jackson said stop-and-frisk tactics and officers who show disrespect to teens are undermining the department’s efforts to build trust in the communities they police.

“These individual cases end up harming the relationship we need to build between the police and the community,” he commented. “People need to understand that individual acts can set the department back light years.”

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