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FIOed: some in Boston face weekly police stops

Activists say stops violate rights, do little to lower city’s crime rate

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
FIOed: some in Boston face weekly police stops
Derrell “Slim” Weathers says he’s been stopped by Boston police countless times, yet they’ve never charged him with a crime. BANNER PHOTO

Like many young black men in Boston, Derrell “Slim” Weathers can’t tell you how many times he’s been stopped, questioned, frisked or searched by police. It started, he says, when he was 12 and has kept up into his 30s, as often as five times a week.

“If it’s not me, it’s one of my friends,” Weathers said. “It’s almost every day.”

Weathers works for a nonprofit that serves local youths and owns a clothing company. He’s never been arrested or charged with a crime by Boston police (he was once arrested in Maine), but he almost certainly features prominently in the department’s FIO database, which records the officers’ field interrogation observation reports that result from stops.

Data the Boston Police Department shared with the Boston Globe showed that Blacks accounted for 69% of FIO entries in 2019, despite making up 22% of the city’s population. While police officials claim that they focus their attention on people who are criminally involved and that higher rates of crime account for the greater number of stops in predominantly black communities, Weathers and others say police routinely stop and question Black people with no criminal records.

A police spokesman said he was unable to provide comment for this story by the Banner’s press deadline.

FIO entries include data garnered from police stops that do not result in arrests. Police claim the data help them better track criminal activity. Yet many question whether police are reliably capturing criminal activity in their entries or creating records of people they consider suspicious, regardless of whether there’s actual underlying criminal activity.

Regardless of past offenses, police should respect people’s protection against illegal search and seizure provided by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

“The problem with the practice of stopping and frisking people without probable cause is that it violates people’s rights,” he said. “It erodes trust between police and the community.”

Police do not have the right to stop someone or question them against their will unless they can clearly articulate a reason they believe that person has committed a crime, is in the process of committing a crime or is about to do so. The “reasonable suspicion” standard was set by the 1968 Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court ruling.

The threshold for searching a person’s pockets, bag or car are even higher: An officer must have probable cause to arrest before they can legally do so. The probable cause standard is enshrined in the Fourth Amendment, which bans illegal search and seizure and has its roots in 17th-century English common law.

Yet, Weathers says, “They search us all the time,” he said. “They don’t give a reason for stopping you. They don’t apologize. They just tell you, ‘Get the f— out of here.’”

The same level of scrutiny does not seem to apply to whites, who account for 44.5% of the city’s population yet make up just 25% of stops recorded in the FIO database.

“I’ve seen cops deal with white people,” Weathers said. “I know it’s different. The police speak in a respectful way. They act reasonable. That never happens with my people.”

In 2017, Weathers says, his car was surrounded by more than 10 police cruisers at Warren and Dale streets.

“They came out of nowhere,” he said. “They searched us and pulled us out of the car. They had no reason to. There was no probable cause.”

Violations of the Fourth Amendment occur on a daily basis, youth advocates say, when officers stop, question and search young Black men and women in Boston’s neighborhoods.

“Nearly everyone I work with has been stopped,” says Toni Golston, a 15-year-old youth organizer who works with The Center for Teen Empowerment and has herself been stopped and questioned. “It’s very belittling. The police assume we’re criminals.”

While Weathers, Golston and many other young Bostonians seem familiar with the Fourth Amendment, it’s unclear to what extent Boston Police are. When police engaged in Operation Clean Sweep in August of last year — an action aimed at moving homeless people from the area near the Suffolk County House of Corrections — they cordoned off Atkinson Street and ordered pedestrians there to provide identification before being allowed to exit, according to a WBUR report. Officers then ran checks for outstanding warrants and made 18 arrests.

The mass detention of people in the area without any clear evidence they were breaking laws appears to be a violation of their constitutional rights. Yet when asked by an officer whether he should keep his body camera on, the officer in charge, Captain John Danilecki told the officer to leave his camera on.

“We got nothing to hide,” Danilecki told the officer. “Because the ACLU might subpoena these records and we want to show them we’re doing everything by the book.”

Rather than driving down crime, the aggressive policing black teens and adults are subjected to may actually be driving up crime statistics, Rahsaan Hall says.

“There are studies that show cities that have greater investments in violence prevention have reductions in violent crime,” he said. “Instead of spending $414 million on policing with significant amounts of that going to overtimes so police and deliver evidence to court, they could spend money on programs and practices that produce the effect of reducing crime.”

Hall cited summer jobs, youth programming and street workers as areas in the city budget that are underfunded while the police budget continues to increase.

Gang database

As much as activists question the efficacy of the FIO database, the department’s gang database is even more problematic, criminal justice reform advocates say. Under the department’s rule 335, police have the power to designate as a gang three or more people who frequent an area and individually or collectively engage or have engaged in criminal activity. In 2019, Boston police listed 5,300 people as active or inactive gang members or affiliates in the city. While Chicago, a city of 2.7 million people, lists 59 gangs in its database, Boston police have identified 160 active and inactive gangs here.

Under the department’s scoring system for determining whether an individual is gang-affiliated, simply being seen in contact with someone police consider a gang member results in two points. After just three such contacts, documented through FIOs, the individual is entered into the database, notes Carl Williams, a criminal defense attorney in Boston.

“They see you on the streets, they think you’re in a gang, they roll up on you and take your ID and then you’re one step closer to being in a gang,” Williams said.

A listing in the gang database can have long-term consequences for Bostonians, whether or not they’re gang-involved. In one case highlighted in the news media in 2018, an East Boston teen identified as gang-involved by school officials was deported after Boston police shared information with federal immigration officials.

Police are under no obligation to tell people whether they’re in the database and there’s no provision for having one’s name removed from the list.

Weathers doesn’t know whether he’s in the gang database, but he says he has never been in a gang. As a youth organizer, he talks to people in rival groups in neighborhoods throughout Boston and works to resolve conflicts peacefully.

“I get along with everyone,” he said.Everyone, that is, except the police.