Black people were far more likely to be the subject of street investigations by Boston police than were white people in 2020, despite heightened national attention to racial disparities in policing after George Floyd’s murder, according to newly released figures.
The overall number of police observations, interrogations, or searches dropped significantly from last year, extending a long-term decline. But stark racial disparities, a longtime target of criticism by civil rights advocates, remained.
The number of people involved in the interactions — known as field interrogation and observations, or FIOs — fell almost 30 percent, according to Boston Police Department statistics. Since 2008, the number of individuals involved in FIO reports has plummeted by more than 80 percent, from more than 55,000 to just over 10,000. An FIO is a catch-all phrase used to describe a range of investigative techniques, from simply taking note of a person on the street to questioning and searching someone.
Black people were the subject of the encounters 62 percent of the time last year, despite comprising less than a quarter of Boston’s population. White people, who are about 45 percent of the city’s population, were subject to FIOs 30 percent of the time. Asian people were subject to less than 1 percent of FIOs, as were Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. Five percent of race data were missing or unknown.
In the past, police have said that most FIOs focus on crime hot spots in the city. But critics say the practice is damaging and needs to end.
“This new data shows that there is still work to do in Boston,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a statement. “Disparate street stops lead to people being both underserved and overpoliced. It’s time to reimagine public safety and address police abuse of power, disparate treatment, and excessive force against Black and Brown communities.”
At least 17 percent of people who were involved in an FIO were of “Hispanic origin,” although those numbers, which were presented in a different category than the race percentages, were missing or unknown for a quarter of the subjects.
A spokesman for Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who has recently criticized the Police Department for letting an officer keep his job for years despite evidence that he had likely molested a child, said it was encouraging that the number of field interrogations had fallen significantly, but that “the persistent racial disparity in who is stopped remains a concern.”
“As Mayor Janey expressed last week, she understands that the fabric of trust between the Boston Police Department and Boston residents has worn thin in parts of our city, especially in communities of color,” Nick Martin, the Janey spokesman, said in a statement. “She is dedicated to ensuring safety, healing, and justice for every resident in all of our neighborhoods.”
In a statement, Boston police cautioned “against the use of simple benchmark comparisons of the racial distribution of Boston residents relative to the racial distribution of FIO subjects for purposes of determining racial disparities in BPD FIO practices.”
“There are many other complicated factors such as neighborhood crime, police deployments, and neighborhood social disadvantage, as well as individual factors such as criminal history and prior interactions that are correlated with the racial distribution of FIO subjects,” police said.
Chris Dearborn, a Suffolk University law professor who runs a criminal defense clinic, said the comment marked “an attempt to pre-emptively influence any interpretation of the data, which flies in the face of transparency.” Currently, the state Supreme Judicial Court does not treat an FIO in and of itself as a constitutional moment, meaning a moment where constitutional protections are in play, he said. The Boston police data “speaks to the need for the SJC to revisit that doctrine,” Dearborn said.
“The racial breakdown is deeply troubling,” he said of the police data.
It was not clear what exactly drove the number of FIOs down from 2019. A Boston police spokesman acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic has affected “everything” in the city, but said the decrease is not attributable to a department policy change.
Racial gaps in who is subjected to FIOs in Boston is far from new. City councilors last year lamented that in 2019 Black people comprised 69 percent of FIO encounters. A 2014 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts found that from 2007 to 2010, Black people were the target of 63 percent of FIOs.
FIO encounters include searches and frisks. According to the police, the subject of an FIO was searched or frisked at least 31 percent of the time. The individual was not searched or frisked about 58 percent of the time. Information was missing for about 10 percent of the interactions.
For the FIOs, police stopped people 60 percent of the time, officers simply “encountered” individuals as part of an FIO 23 percent of the time, and observed people 14 percent of the time.
Councilor Julia Mejia said that while FIO stops decreased between 2019 and 2020, “they increased in percentage for ‘Hispanic’ people.”
“And while between 2019 and 2020 FIO stops decreased for Black people, they are relatively similar to 2016 levels,” she said in a statement. “Creating systems of accountability is more than just publishing data, it’s changing systems that allow for racist and discriminatory practices that affect the way we serve the community.”
Councilor Michelle Wu said “the fact that Black Bostonians were subject to a hugely disproportionate number of police stops is yet another urgent reminder of the structural racism in our systems.”
“The vision and actions of our systems of public safety and health must center on building trust with community,” Wu said in a statement.
Councilor Andrea Campbell said that the racial disparities in the police data “are still profound and still exist.” Diversifying the police force and the newly created Office of Police Accountability and Transparency could help address the root of the problem, she said.
“There is still a lot more public reporting that needs to be done if we want the department to shift its culture and to ensure accountability,” she said.
Racial disparities persist across American law enforcement and the country’s legal system. For instance, one recent study that looked at misdemeanor enforcement in seven different locales across the country found that racial disparities between Black and white people existed in each jurisdiction. Another study found that in 2018, Black people in New York City were at least five times more likely to have been stopped and arrested compared to white people and the Hispanic enforcement rates were at least three times higher than the rates for white people.
“I can’t think of one criminal legal system trend off the top of my head where there isn’t a racial disparity,” said Preeti Chauhan, director of the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.