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ACLU study finds blacks disproportionately targeted by police stop-and-frisks

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
ACLU study finds blacks disproportionately targeted by police stop-and-frisks
Police take a suspect into custody. (Banner file photo)

Blacks in Boston are subject to the majority of all police stops and searches in Boston, despite making up just 24 percent of the city’s population, according to a study of police data commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

The study looked at four years of data gleaned from the Boston Police Department’s database of field interrogations. Of the 204,000 field interrogations Boston Police made between 2007 and 2010, 63 percent were interrogations of people police identified as black, 22 percent were identified as white and 12 percent were identified as Latino.

While police appear to have cast a wide net—at least among blacks—the 204,000 stops the officers made yielded scant results, with just 2.5 percent of the stops resulting in the seizure of illegal contraband and/or arrest.

In 75 percent of the police-civilian street encounters, officers cited “investigate a person,” as the reason for the stop, eschewing the departmental regulation requiring police to give a reason for a stop.

ACLU Staff Attorney Carl Williams said the data show a pattern of racial discrimination in Boston Police Department practices.

“The preliminary findings make it clear that the BPD has practiced racially discriminatory policing,” Williams said. “This practice contradicts the principle of equal protection, which is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.”

A large percentage of the 204,000 stops recorded were in majority black and Latino sections of Boston—44,570 were in Boston Police Area B2, which includes all of Roxbury, 31,000 were in Area C11 in Dorchester and 28,000 were in Area B3 in Mattapan.

In areas of the city with fewer blacks, there were far fewer stops. In Area A15 in Charlestown, there were just 3,300 stops in that same time period. In Area C6 in South Boston there were 4,000 stops and in Area D14 in Brighton there were 6,000 stops.

Williams said that in every section of the city, blacks are more likely to be stopped than whites, even after controlling for prior arrests of those stopped, crime rates in the areas where people are stopped and whether or not those stopped are alleged to have a gang affiliation.

“Even when you do mathematical controls for those factors, the analysis found there’s still a disparity,” he said. “Black people and people in black communities are more likely to be stopped.”

The data also show that black people are more likely to be searched when stopped, and more likely to be stopped multiple times than whites.

“This data will provide some validation to what we’ve known all along has been happening, and hopefully some recourse,” said Stephanie Soriano, chairwoman of Legal Redress at the NAACP New England Area Conference.

Mayor Martin Walsh said his administration has been working with the police department to address the disparities outlined by the ACLU report.

“From day one, I’ve made it clear that we need to address crime prevention, and that we can’t arrest our way out of any public safety problems,” he said in a statement emailed to the Banner. “One of my first tasks as Mayor was the appointment of the most diverse command staff in the history of the Boston Police Department. We’ve invested significant time and effort into building relationships and community-focused policing. And our lower crime stats reflect that work. We’re focused on a culture change across our City, and that doesn’t happen overnight, but I am proud of the work we have done under the leadership of Police Commissioner Evans and we will continue moving forward.”

The pattern of police stops overwhelmingly targeting blacks in Boston draws an interesting parallel to New York, where blacks and Latinos were targeted in 84 percent of the stops in 2011 and contraband was found in only 2 percent of the stops. While the NYPD had an explicit policy of stopping and frisking civilians, Boston police have steadfastly denied that officers make stops without reasonable suspicion. But the statistics are similar: 75 percent of stops in Boston involve subjects police identified as black or Latino.

A pair of lawsuits filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights found the NYPD liable for its pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory stops of blacks and Latinos. New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio has promised to end the NYPD stop-and-frisk policy. Williams said the ACLU of Massachusetts has no plan to sue Boston Police.

Yet the fact that in 97.5 percent of the 204,000 stops documented by Boston Police between 2007 and 2010 there were no arrests made and no contraband found suggests a pattern similar to that in New York.

“Either the Boston Police are doing a terrible job documenting arrests, or they’re doing a terrible job picking who to stop and frisk,” Williams said. “Both scenarios are concerning, and one or both of them has to be true.”

A 1963 Supreme Court ruling, Terry v. Ohio, determined it unconstitutional for police to stop or detain a person without a reasonable suspicion that they are engaged in a crime, have committed a crime or are about to commit a crime. The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars police from unreasonable search and seizure.

If police have reasonable suspicion to stop a suspect, they may pat the suspect down to ensure the suspect is not carrying a weapon. Police cannot search a suspect’s bag or pockets unless they meet a higher standard: probable cause to arrest the suspect.

“There has to be some kind of reasonable suspicion for police to stop and search people,” Soriano said. “It can’t just be because a black person is walking down the street.”

In practice, many black teens in Boston say they are routinely stopped, searched and released by police without a credible explanation from officers.

“It’s an everyday thing,” said Imani Wright, a member of Youth Against Mass Incarceration. “It’s a reality of being a black or Latino man in this city.”

Wright said teens’ frequent contact with police officers who are often rude and violent fosters a deep-seated distrust between residents in black communities and the officers who police them.

“You’re constantly being watched,” he said. “There are people who are constantly messing with you. It gets to the point where some people think that’s just how things are. But I’m pretty sure you don’t have people in wealthy neighborhoods being stopped.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts first requested the data from the police department in 2009, according to Williams.

“It’s been a five-year project, and we still don’t have the raw data,” Williams said.

While the police have refused to share the raw data with the ACLU, they agreed to turn it over to two researchers—Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Anthony Braga and Columbia University Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan, who generated the report for the ACLU.

ACLU members and representatives from other criminal justice reform groups and youth organizations are planning to rally Thursday, Oct. 9 at Boston Police headquarters and issue demands for reforms in police practices.

Soriano said she would like to see officers’ cruisers outfitted with cameras, a strategy that’s been employed in other cities.

“Nobody’s saying deny the police investigative tools, but there can’t be violations of people’s civil rights,” she said.

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