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Walsh cites progress on policing

Data suggest rights violations persist

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Walsh cites progress on policing
Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Questioned last week about police reports alleging unconstitutional searches, Mayor Martin Walsh said the department is making progress in reducing crime and arrests, and pledged to work to improve relations between police and the communities they patrol.

“We have to continue to work every single day at community policing and building trust in the neighborhoods,” Walsh told the Banner. “Clearly, some of those numbers are bothersome. For me this year, the biggest number I’m looking at is the 15 percent drop in the number of arrests. Every day with the police we’re building trust and building support. Something’s working. So we’re going to continue to build on that.”

Three weeks ago, the police department released 54 months of entries from the Field Intelligence Observation Report database, a repository of reports on police observations and interactions. Officers are required to file FIOs when they observe, question or detain people suspected of criminal activity. The reports are filed in a database that is intended to allow officers to track the activities and associations of gang members and criminally-involved individuals.

Among the 149,545 entries in the database, police officers recorded 3,533 instances where they searched an individual’s person, vehicle or property citing “reasonable suspicion.” Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which defines protections against illegal search and seizure, “reasonable suspicion” is insufficient basis for conducting searches. Police are required to have “probable cause” to arrest in order to make a warrantless, nonconsensual search.

According to department spokesman Lt. Detective Michael McCarthy, police supervisors check the records entered into the database.

City Councilor Tito Jackson.

“Detective Supervisors are required to sign off on every FIO that is submitted,” McCarthy said in an email sent to the Banner.

Officers can observe or question individuals at random. But the same is not true for detaining a person against their will. In the 1968 Terry v. Ohio case, the Supreme Court ruled that officers can briefly detain a person only if they reasonably suspect the individual has committed a crime or is in the process of committing a crime. Under that standard, police may also conduct a pat-down of a suspect if they have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect is “armed and dangerous.”

Teenagers and young adults in Boston say police often overstep those bounds, going through their pockets, bags or vehicles to search for weapons or drugs. The wording of the Fourth Amendment clearly proscribes such warrantless searches:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Walsh cited changes in the police department — including his appointments of people of color to over half the top command positions — which he says have made the BPD more responsive to the communities it polices.

The data show a noticeable change in recordings of illegal searches. From November 2010 through December 2013 – during the administration of the late Mayor Thomas Menino – officers recorded illegal searches at a rate of 72 a month – more than two per day on average. Following Walsh’s re-ordering of the department, that number dropped to 40 a month – just over one such search per day on average.

A call for oversight

The Boston police released its latest batch of data, from November 2010 through April 2015, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sued the department for its release. Critics say the data, with its documentation of seemingly unconstitutional searches, underscores the need for greater supervision of police practices. City Councilor Tito Jackson said the data underscores the need for police officers to be outfitted with body-worn cameras.

“It would help determine the constitutionality of these interactions,” Jackson said.

Jackson also suggested that a civilian review board could help ensure that people complaining of rights violations would get a fair hearing.

Like the data released last year, which covered 2007 through October of 2010, the data released in January showed that blacks were 58 percent of those entered in the database, despite making up just 24 percent of the city’s population. Whites, who make up nearly half of the city’s population, were just 22.8 percent of those entered in the database.

In a statement emailed to the Banner, Walsh said his administration is working to ensure fairness.

“Myself, as well as Commissioner Evans and the Boston Police Department are deeply committed to ensuring fair and equitable treatment of all Boston residents,” he said. “There is no tolerance for discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, ethnicity, age, religion or economic status. It’s something I believe in strongly: leadership should reflect Boston’s people and there is no room for discrimination in our city. That applies to our school systems and in our streets.”

Jackson said police practices that target black teenagers are not effective in fighting crime.

“When police stop young people who are not involved in illegal activity, that actually makes our neighborhoods and communities less safe, because young people are then less likely to trust the police,” he said. “Every young person deserves to be treated with the dignity and respect that the Constitution affords them.”

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