A scathing new report alleges that New Bedford police stopped, frisked, or questioned Black people at significantly higher rates than white people over the past five years, as a handful of officers frequently targeted young people of color in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.
An analysis of nearly 5,000 police “field incident reports” from 2015 to June 2020 shows that 46 percent involved Black people, according to the report by Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a statewide youth advocacy group. Ten officers were involved in nearly half of those incidents and primarily focused on Black or Latinx people, the data shows. Most of those were assigned to the department’s gang unit, according to police. Five officers accounted for 47 percent of incidents involving those under 18.
“There are clear and significant patterns of racial bias in policing in the city of New Bedford,” said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. “That biased policing really creates an oppressive environment for young people who are growing up in that city and are being watched and surveilled constantly.”
The report comes amid a national movement demanding police reform to confront systemic and implicit bias against Black people following the police killings of people of color following routine or questionable stops. In September, the state’s highest court issued several decisions aimed at solidifying equal protection under the law as it addressed what it called the “long history of race-based policing” in Massachusetts.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said in a statement Tuesday that the city “has long distinguished itself among Northeastern cities as an exemplar of racial equality, and we are committed to confronting any indication of systemic racism in public institutions. We will closely review the report and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that policing in our city is evenhanded.”
Mitchell said the group had not yet shared its report or findings with his office. The report is slated to be released to local authorities and community groups during a Zoom event Wednesday night.
Smith said the data, released to the group in response to its public records request, underscores complaints the organization received from youths who say they are unfairly targeted and harassed by police, sometimes while walking to school.
The field incident reports include stop-and-frisk encounters, interrogations, and officers’ observations of people that may not have involved an interaction with an officer, according to police. They do not include arrests. Many of the incidents were clustered near public housing developments or schools, the data shows.
The report also says officers are encouraged to live in public housing through a federal program that gives them a steep discount on rent. Eight officers live in housing developments throughout the city under the Housing and Urban Development program created in the early 1990s to increase security for housing development residents and reduce crime, according to a spokeswoman for the Police Department. None of those eight officers were among the 10 who accounted for the bulk of the incidents, according to police.
But the report said the arrangement has led to complaints from residents of “over-policing” in some sections of the city.
The police department “essentially operates as an occupying force in poor neighborhoods of color,” the report says. “There are some neighborhoods with a majority of white residents, where the police simply do not stop many people.”
New Bedford Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro, who is retiring at the end of April and has also not seen the Juvenile Justice report, said in a statement that the incident reports “are not necessarily indicative of a physical interaction involving the police; for example, they typically reflect observations conducted from a distance or even via social media. They do not necessarily indicate that an individual was approached, stopped, or interviewed, nor do they imply criminal behavior; oftentimes they represent observations of individuals known to police in locations where the risk of violence may be high, including the location of past homicides.”
However, the Juvenile Justice group said the department declined its request for information that involved only stops, saying it doesn’t compile such data.
Cordeiro said the city has experienced a sharp decrease in crime over the past five years “due in no small part to a community policing strategy that focuses on building trust between the department and all residents.”
He said he has requested additional funding for training in cultural competency, implicit bias, explicit bias, antiracism, and emotional intelligence, for the men and women of the 252-member force. Nearly 25 percent of New Bedford’s officers are non-Caucasian, with 15 percent identifying as Black, 6 percent Latino, and 4 percent American Indian.
The city’s population is 7 percent Black, according to the census, but it also has more than 8,000 Cape Verdean residents.
“Our work certainly is not done,” Cordeiro said. “We will continue to work collaboratively with our residents to ensure the department’s mission to keep everyone in our city safe is carried out fairly and equitably.”
LaSella Hall, president of president of the NAACP’s New Bedford branch, said the data shows the Police Department is engaged in the same pattern of over-policing communities of color that has been exposed in cities across the country.
The New Bedford data, showing that 10 officers were involved in nearly 46 percent of all incidents and mostly stopped Black or Latinx people, raises troubling concerns about whether some officers are illegally stopping and harassing people of color, Hall said.
“We know we have bad actors in the police force,” Hall said. “We have to look at these bad actors and say, ‘What are the police doing about it?’”
Citizens for Juvenile Justice launched a “deep dive” into New Bedford police practices after the city paid $500,000 last year to settle a wrongful death suit with the estate of 15-year-old Malcolm Gracia, who was shot and killed by police in 2012, according to the report.
Prosecutors found the shooting was justified because Gracia stabbed an officer, then ignored orders to drop the knife. However, a judge ruled in the civil case that police triggered the confrontation by illegally stopping Gracia and a friend as they were walking near a housing development.
Police said they saw Gracia use a handshake they thought might be gang-related, but there was no evidence Gracia was in a gang, according to court filings.
New Bedford has long been plagued by gang violence. In 2019, nearly two dozen reputed members or associates of the New Bedford chapter of the Latin Kings were charged in a sweeping federal racketeering indictment involving allegations of drug trafficking, shootings and witness intimidation.
The report contends that police use “highly subjective data” to add people to its gang database, which is composed mostly of people of color. Data released by police shows that more than half of the 608 people on the gang database are listed as Black people, 24 percent are listed as non-Black Hispanics, and 21 percent are white. The report says people have no ability to challenge their addition to the list, and often don’t know they are on it, even though it can have consequences in criminal or immigration proceedings.
Citizens for Juvenile Justice is calling for broad police reforms, including the implementation of a racial profiling policy, more oversight of how the city’s gang database is compiled and used, and withdrawal from the program that has resulted in officers “living virtually rent-free” in public housing.