Boston police overwhelmingly singled out Black people for street investigations in 2019, department records show, a disparity that has persisted even as the number of reported stops, searches, and observations has decreased over the last decade.
Released for the first time in three years, the data quickly became part of the city’s urgent discussion of the role that race and racism play in policing, underscoring calls to reform and defund police departments that protesters have made during massive marches throughout Boston in recent weeks.
The data on Field Interrogations and Observations — known more commonly around the country as stop-and-frisk — show that the number of stops police officers conducted remained relatively steady, dropping from 15,011 in 2017 to 14,444 in 2019. That’s a sharp drop from the highest recorded number in 2008, when police reported stopping, interrogating, or observing people 55,684 times.
But the racial disparities have remained: In 2019 Black people, who made up one-quarter of the city’s population in 2019, accounted for 69 percent of the stops. White people, though 44.5 percent of the city’s population, accounted for 25 percent of stops.
Data on whether the person stopped was Hispanic — collected in a different category than the race data — showed about 15 percent of encounters were with a Hispanic person, though the information was missing in about one-third of encounters.
A spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who last week declared racism a public health emergency in the city following the widespread protests after the death of George Floyd, said he will review the data but did not provide specific details.
“The mayor believes there is always room for improvement in our policing strategy, which is why the mayor and the police commissioner have committed to taking action to review and reform police policies to bring about meaningful and lasting change at the police department,” Samantha Ormsby, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Officers documented just 111 stops of people they listed as Asian, Native, or other — less than 1 percent of all encounters.
More than half of stops were of people between the ages of 18 and 34. About 6 percent were of people who were 17 or younger.
The data show similar disparities to what has been released in the past: In a study of encounters between 2011 and 2015, researchers found the biggest predictors for whether a person of any race would be stopped more than once were gang affiliation and criminal history. And police have long maintained that the racial data alone is misleading, because police focus their attention on people they already know to be criminal offenders. But the earlier research, after controlling for criminal history, showed Black people were 8.8 percent more likely than white people to be stopped repeatedly and 12 percent more likely to be frisked or searched.
The Boston Police Department did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Boston police began releasing data about field interrogations and observations in 2016. The data showed how often officers were stopping, searching, and questioning people, and how often they made a note of observing someone they considered suspicious without making a stop. The data do not include arrests: If an officer stops someone and sees a reason to make an arrest, like an outstanding warrant, or an illegally-held firearm — the stop is not included in the department’s FIO statistics.
William Evans, Boston’s former police commissioner, pledged in 2016 to release the data every year as a way of being more transparent with the community. The data released allowed Bostonians to see where officers were making stops, the ages, races, and ethnicities of people they were interacting with.
“We want to be as transparent as we possibly can,” Evans said at the time. After he left office, the department did not release the data again until this year.
The data is an important check on police work, Boston city Councilor Andrea Campbell said.
“The data confirms what Black residents of Boston already knew: That they are disproportionately policed, as are the neighborhoods in which they live," Campbell said Monday. Campbell had filed a subpoena for the data in March.
Data from the stops can also be used in the department’s database of suspected gang members: If officers believe a person has ties to gang members because they have seen him in certain areas or with certain people, they may stop him more often — even if he is not a gang member.
“This is being used to inform a gangs database, creating a scenario where more of my residents are being targeted,” Campbell said. “That also has to stop.”
Campbell urged Bostonians to use this moment as an opportunity to push for more transparency from the Police Department, and to reconsider what public safety can be. She also encouraged the city to look into which units are engaging in disproportionate or discriminatory stops and consider disbanding them.”
“It has to change," she said. "Residents have been pushing for this for years.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.