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Evans defends Boston police after ACLU report on racial bias

Cites stress on crime, not race

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

Commissioner William Evans defended the department, and said that officers focused on high-crime areas and individuals with gang affiliations and criminal records.

By and Globe Staff 

Boston police officers disproportionately observed, interrogated, or searched black residents from 2007 to 2010, according to the preliminary results of a study commissioned by the department that were released Wednesday.

“This study shows evidence not just of racial disparity, but of racial bias,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which collaborated with the Boston Police Department on the genesis of the study, and on Wednesday released its own analysis of the data. “That is really alarming.”

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But Commissioner William Evans defended the department, and said that officers focused on high-crime areas and individuals with gang affiliations and criminal records. He noted that the data were years old, but acknowledged the racial disparity in encounters with Boston police.

Evans also said the department has since overhauled its procedures for stopping residents and has instituted new racial profiling and bias training. Overall, he said, the report shows the work of a police department focused on violence, not race.

“We recognize that we’re not perfect,” said Evans, who was appointed commissioner in January. “We’re focusing on the violent areas, we’re focusing on kids who have been involved in gangs and violence. So this is a focused effort, with the whole purpose of making those neighborhoods as safe as possible.”

The study looked at 204,739 “Field Interrogation/Observation/Frisk and/or Search” incidents, or “FIOs,” recorded by Boston police from 2007 to 2010. An FIO, said Evans, is done for investigative purposes, and encompasses a range of interactions between police and residents, from an officer driving past a person and writing down his or her location and activities, to an officer stopping a person and talking to or interrogating the person, to an officer frisking or searching an individual.

About 40 percent of FIOs led to a frisk or search, and about 24 percent were observational, in which the subject may not even be aware of the encounter with police, the study found.

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While blacks made up 24.4 percent of Boston’s population, according to the 2010 Census, they made up 63.3 percent of FIOs during the period that was examined.

The study also found that the biggest predictors for whether a person of any race would be stopped repeatedly were gang affiliation and criminal history, and the biggest predictor for how frequently police conducted FIOs in different neighborhoods was its crime rate.

However, after controlling for issues like criminal history, blacks were 8.8 percent more likely than whites to be stopped repeatedly by police, and 12 percent more likely than whites to be frisked or searched during a stop.

The study also found that black neighborhoods saw more FIOs than white neighborhoods, even after researchers controlled for crime rate, with each 1 percent increase in black residents bringing with it a 2.2 percent hike in FIOs.

“What is the conclusion?” said Anthony Braga, a professor at Harvard University and Rutgers University, who is one of the study’s two lead authors. “One is that, when we analyze the FIO activity of the Boston Police Department, we do find patterns that suggest racial disparities in the way it is being executed in neighborhoods. That said, we also see that the Boston Police Department is using FIOs in ways that you would expect given their crime control mission.”

In its analysis, the ACLU stated that of all the FIOs recorded, none led to arrest, and only 2.5 percent led to seizure of contraband.

But Braga said that interpretation is wrong. FIOs, he said, aren’t necessarily intended to lead to arrest, and the majority do not involve searches. When an FIO does turn up contraband or an arrestable offense, it is no longer considered an FIO.

Instead, a police report is filled out in those situations.

The results of the study are preliminary, and though the big picture will not change, details might, said Braga, who was the Boston Police Department’s chief policy adviser under former Commissioner Edward F. Davis and currently works with the department on federally and privately funded research projects on crime control.

The other lead author, Columbia Law School professor Jeffrey Fagan, studied the controversial “stop and frisk” program in New York City.

The Boston study raised concerns among community leaders and clergy, though some credited the department with making improvements in recent years.

“It angers me that there’s a disproportionate rate of stops of black and Latino men in the city of Boston,” said Councilor Tito Jackson, who was raised in the Grove Hall section of Roxbury. “The data and the numbers indicate that we must do more ... [and] that we must not selectively enforce in the city of Boston.”

Jackson said he expects that councilors will have a chance to meet with Evans and Superintendent-in-Chief William G. Gross to discuss the report and “determine a course of action to remedy these disparate numbers.”

Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said he, too, hopes to meet with police and city officials.

“What we are saying to the city of Boston is that the few violent offenders do not justify an infringement on the rights of other law-abiding citizens of color in the city of Boston,” he said.

But the Rev. Mark V. Scott, associate pastor at the Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester who works with at-risk youth, took issue with the study in a phone interview.

The ACLU said that police engaged in “widespread racially biased street encounters,” but Rev. Scott said that assertion is “not true.’’

Scott said that over the last two decades, the police have been moving in the right direction. The study failed to take into account the efforts that police have made on a number of fronts, including helping troubled young people stay in school, he said.

“Shame, shame on the ACLU,” Scott said.

In its analysis, the ACLU slammed police for what it called “racially discriminatory policing,” and said that officers have failed to ensure that police-civilian encounters comply with constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In about 75 percent of the recorded FIOs, officers simply wrote “Investigate person” under their reason for the encounter.

“This report isn’t about questioning the good faith efforts of police officers to try to reduce violence in the city and to reduce crime in the city,” Segal said. “This was about testing whether those efforts, efforts directed at crime and violence and gangs, account for all these police encounters. And they just don’t.”

The ACLU suggested the department require officers to wear body cameras and provide documentation to civilians involved in FIOs, and to publish data on all stops every quarter.

Evans said the department will begin reporting data, and he is considering using business cards as receipts, and also will examine using body cameras.

Evans also noted, however, that since 2008, the department has decreased the number of FIOs it completes by nearly 42 percent, and has decreased arrests by 33 percent. That decline was accompanied by steady reductions in violent crime, he said.

The commissioner also noted the study showed that 5 percent of the individuals subject to FIO accounted for more than 40 percent of the total FIOs conducted, meaning a number of people were involved in multiple encounters.

An outside expert will review the final study, he said.

Former Commissioner Davis, who commissioned the study, said that while it raises valid points, “I think it’s an overreaction to say that this is all racially charged and racially motivated.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement that while the report covers a period before his administration, the city has acknowledged and worked to address the racial disparities outlined by the ACLU.


Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.