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City must confront racial bias of stop-and-frisk

Boston police finally released 2019 street encounter data. It reveals a severely disproportionate burden on Black residents.

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross and Mayor Marty Walsh should take bold action now and do more than release stop-and-frisk data.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Cries for the Boston police and the mayor’s office to release data on who gets stopped on our streets have at last been answered. But the picture painted by the just-released 2019 numbers on “Field Interrogations and Observations” — street encounters more commonly known as “stop and frisk” incidents — is not a pretty one: Boston police stop far more Black people than whites, in extreme disproportion to their share of the city’s population.

Black people make up only a quarter of Boston’s residents, yet they constitute 69 percent of the people stopped by city police in street encounters in 2019. And even as overall stop-and-frisk encounters have declined in Boston since a decade ago, the overwhelming racial disparity of such encounters has persisted.


It’s a measure of the success of police reform movements that the mayor and the Police Department finally released new street encounter records after years of demands from civic organizations, city leaders, and this editorial board. The data are a matter of public interest and a form of accountability for policing. In 2016, the city briefly began releasing the street encounter figures for the previous decade, following a 2015 directive by former Boston police commissioner William Evans, who noted that monitoring and making public such data would build “community trust.” Evans’s directive coincided with a national effort to make policing more transparent and accountable to citizens.

But by 2017, the department had ceased making the data public. Evans stepped down in 2018. The Globe editorial board called for the release of the data in January of this year. In March, City Councilor Andrea Campbell filed a subpoena for the data. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Globe have also made public records requests for the data in recent years.


While transparency is the first step toward addressing racial bias in policing and building public trust, exposing a problem is hardly enough. Mayor Walsh and the Boston police should examine the patterns in the data to determine whether particular officers or units are routinely stopping Black people without cause — or whether it’s the entire force — and institute policies to prevent unjustified street encounters.

If, as BPD has argued in the past, such encounters are the byproduct of police efforts to prevent gang violence and track known criminals, the police owe it to the public to document that this is the case — to prove the stop-and-frisk actually reduces crime and makes neighborhoods safer. The 2019 data show people being stopped for a variety of reasons, including a broad category of “reasonable suspicion,” that encompass more than a person’s past criminal history and that could be particularly prone to racial bias. A WGBH analysis found that despite being more likely to encounter Boston police, Black people were in 2019 less likely to be issued a citation or formal summons, which poses the danger that these encounters are creating greater exposure to the criminal justice system for residents without good reason. A study of prior years’ street encounter data has shown that even when criminal history is accounted for as a statistical factor, Black people were 8.8 percent more likely than white people to be stopped repeatedly by the Boston police and 12 percent more likely to be frisked or searched.


With the nation’s eyes on police violence and racism, and calls to defund the police gaining steam, it’s in the BPD’s and the mayor’s interest to take bold action now and do more than release the data. It’s also a matter of justice. The city needs to end the disproportionate burden of street encounters on Black residents.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.