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Police stops still focus on blacks

Last year, 70 percent of FIOs involved blacks; rate raises 4th Amendment concerns

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Police stops still focus on blacks
Thierno Diallo, a 17-year-old, was stopped and searched by police while walking home. His story is not an uncommon one.

Early this summer, Thierno Diallo, a 17-year-old, was walking home with his older brother after helping their father move items into a storage space in Dorchester. It was mid-morning, around 10 a.m. He was walking toward Roxbury Crossing, planning to drop by the bank on his way back. Police officers stopped the pair.

Diallo says the officers asked the brothers for their IDs. When he asked why, the officers insisted repeatedly, and proceeded to pat the brothers down and search their backpacks.

Diallo ultimately handed over his ID; the officers checked it and found no criminal record in their system. But his 23-year-old brother refused to provide ID without the officers providing justification. When the young men tried to leave, the officers followed, stopped them, and asked for both their IDs again, Diallo said. Finally, they called their father who advised them just to walk away, and this time, the officers let it be.

“They made us take off our bags to check us, and checked the bags, too,” Diallo said. “I was just thinking ‘Why? What made you think we had something on us?’ There was no reason. There was no probable cause.”

Diallo says in his own Hyde Park neighborhood officers do not tend to stop people trivially. There, a number of officers are from the area and know residents, he said. But now he tries to avoid the area where he was subjected to what he says was an unjustified search.

It was the first time such an incident had happened to Diallo — but accounts such as his are not uncommon.

Carl Williams, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said when the police stop people for reasons that seem based on race, not on reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime, it reinforces a lack of trust and a sense that the police are not there to help all residents.

“Folks in the administration say, ‘How come folks in these neighborhoods aren’t telling us what happened and helping us solve crimes?’” Williams said. “Well, it’s because you searched their daughter last week. Because you pulled over their son. My personal view is that type of behavior makes it much more difficult for police to solve actual crimes being committed in our communities.”

Behind the disparities

Black residents make up 25 percent of the city population, but in 2016 made up 70 percent of those targeted by police street-level observation, stops or searches, according to an analysis from The Boston Globe. This is not a new trend: Boston Police Department field interrogation and observations, or FIOs, disproportionately involved black individuals during 2007-2010, when 63 percent of those subjected to FIOs were black, and during 2011-2014, when the proportion was 58.5 percent, according to ACLU and BPD statistics, respectively.

A police spokesperson told the Globe that FIOs are focused on areas of the city that experience higher rates of crime. (The BPD media relations office did not return phone calls for this story.) Officers said also that the racial disparity may be less than it appears, because they frequently stop, search, and observe the same individuals on multiple occasions. These individuals, they said, are certain people known to them as criminal offenders, usually as gang members.

For the data to be this way, it would also mean that many of these individuals are black.

“It is inappropriate to draw conclusions on the race distribution without first understanding who is FIO’d, and who is FIO’d repeatedly,” Boston Police spokesman Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy told the Globe.

The ACLU’s Williams said this justification falls short. For one, the police do not, traditionally, seem to have been limited to stopping people who have criminal records.

A report released by the ACLU that analyzed the 2007–2010 period found that police stops did not increase in proportion to crime in a neighborhood. What they did increase in relation to was the black population. When controlling for factors such as crime and gang membership, the ACLU found that neighborhoods with more black people were more likely to be focus of FIO encounters and the stops were more likely to be repeated and invasive — including more frisks and searches over mere observations, Williams said.

Following this report, the BPD implemented training on racial profiling and bias and explicitly prohibited policing based on race and gender. However, the percent of FIOs that involve black residents has continued to be much higher than the representation of blacks in the city population.

The Banner also reported in 2015 that the police appear to apply the label of “gang” too liberally at times, sweeping under it people with no such affiliation, as one young man said had happened to him. At the time, Makis Antzoulatos, a National Lawyers Guild member and Boston attorney, told the Banner that the police’s Youth Violence Strike Force seemed to be using a definition of “gang” dating from 1993. That definition applies to any formal or informal group comprising at least three people with current or past criminal activity that also has claimed territory or has some sort of identifier, such as a name or colors. A person also could be labeled as a gang member if seen at least twice in the company of someone considered part of a gang. Individuals not fitting the specified criteria could be marked as a “gang associate” if the police nonetheless believe they are closely connected to a gang.

Lawful protection

On a deeper level, the accuracy of police determination of gang affiliation or prior criminal involvement is not the critical question here. Williams noted that anyone — even someone with a criminal record — is protected by the law from being stopped or searched without probable cause. Having done something wrong once is not sufficient cause to believe a person currently is doing something wrong now, he said.

“Just saying ‘People are criminals. There are gangs,’” is not enough,” Williams said. “People — whether they have previous criminal records, are in a gang, or live in neighborhoods that have gangs — still have Fourth Amendment rights. People are not allowed to stop a person because they have a criminal record or because the police said they are in a gang.”