Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell filed a subpoena with the city Monday morning demanding data the Boston Police Department had not made available to the public since 2017 about how and where officers stop, search, and record observations of city residents.
The subpoena came a few days after a Suffolk Superior Court judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit claiming the department regularly uses delays to skirt the state’s public records law.
The Police Department had in the past released 10 years of data about the encounters, which officers refer to as field interrogations and observations. Officers on patrol still write the reports, which department officials use in investigations, in their database of suspected gang members, and in deciding where to send patrols.
But since the department last made its 2016 data public in mid-2017, residents have had no way of knowing how many people police officers are stopping, where the stops are taking place, or who officers are focusing on.
"By keeping residents in the dark about what’s happening on our streets, the administration is failing to build trust with communities that it desperately needs to,” said Campbell, chair of the council’s committee on public safety and criminal justice. "The city needs to release this data immediately.”
A police spokesman, Sergeant Detective John Boyle, said last week that the records could be available as early as this week, but said he could not be more specific.
"The intent has always been for the Boston Police Department to make this information available to the public as soon as possible,” Samantha Ormsby, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said Monday after Campbell filed the subpoena.
When The Boston Globe filed a public records request for updated data in November, a spokesman for the Police Department said it no longer compiles the data for public release.
In the subpoena, Campbell asked for "documents related to the Boston Police Department’s field interrogation and observation policy as well as the field interrogation and observation data from 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.” The city has a week to comply.
When the data was released, it showed a focus on Black and Latino residents — but also a decline in the number of stops conducted overall.
From 2011 to April of 2015, 58.5 percent of FIO subjects were Black, 22.8 percent white, and 13.1 percent Latino. About 74 percent of FIO subjects had "prior records reported by the officers,” police said at the time.
In 2016, almost 70 percent of stops involved Black people. The analysis also found police were stopping fewer people — from a high of 55,684 in 2008 to 9,049 stops involving 14,995 people in 2016.
The subpoena came just days after a Suffolk Superior Court judge declined to dismiss an unrelated lawsuit an advocacy group filed against the Police Department, which claimed the department has a practice of delaying public records requests.
Attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights had filed the lawsuit when the department took 116 business days to respond to a request regarding how the department’s employment practices affect the racial and gender makeup of its force. The state’s public records law requires public agencies to respond to requests within 10 business days, though time extensions are allowed.
Attorneys for the Police Department had asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.
"Access to public records in a timely manner increases government transparency and permits community members to hold government accountable on an ongoing bases,” Judge Robert Ullmann wrote in a decision dated Feb. 27 and filed March 3. "Access to information about diversity and inclusion measures for BPD is particularly important because BPD has failed to keep pace with the growing diversity in Boston.”
Ullmann also noted that delays may cost members of the public an opportunity to have any input on policies.
“There are only limited times during the year when members of the public may advocate to the BPD for changes in policies and practices related to racial and gender equality,” he wrote.
The decision to let the case proceed "puts BPD and other public agencies on notice that they cannot cast aside the public’s right to information and that they will be held accountable for their failure to comply with the law,” said Sophia Hall, supervising attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights.
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.