Boston police to step up antibias measures
Respond to report on dealings with black residents
The Boston Police Department said Friday it will institute new antibias policies and provide annual reporting on police stops in response to a report saying it had disproportionately observed, interrogated, or searched black residents from 2007 through 2010.
The changes, which also include a new task force of community leaders and a further independent review of police stops, won modest praise from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and local clergy, but also renewed calls for police body cameras.
"Most of the time, when there is an allegation of bias the response is, 'The report's flawed,'" said Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern's Institute on Race and Justice, who will conduct the independent review. "The commissioner didn't do that here. He said, 'Tell me how to make the department better.'"
Police Commissioner William Evans said police officers were not motivated by racial bias, but were deployed in high-crime areas where many people of color live. He said police targeted known offenders, and he noted that about 5 percent of the people stopped by police made up more than 40 percent of the most common form of police stops.
"We want to be as transparent as we possibly can," Evans said. "The number of [observations and stops] are continually going down, our arrests are going down, and at the same time, our crime rate is going down. . . . I'm not saying we're perfect. I'm suggesting we're working on it."
In response to the findings, Evans instituted a new Bias-Free Policing Policy, which forbids policing based on characteristics such as race and gender, and states that discipline may occur if an officer "engages in biased policing."
The department's "field interrogation/observation/frisk and/or search policy" has been revised to include language explicitly prohibiting stops based on race, gender, or other personal characteristics, and requires officers to document specific information that caused them to stop a person in the first place. The study found that a full three-quarters of all stops were explained as "investigate person," a description seen as not sufficiently detailed.
The study, requested by the department and the ACLU, looked at racial disparities in field-interrogation/observation/frisk and/or search incidents, or FIOs. They encompass a range of interactions between police and residents, from an officer driving past a person and recording the activities observed to an officer stopping and searching a person. Preliminary results of the study were released in October, and Friday's final report reiterated those findings.
The study found that gang membership and prior arrests were strong predictors of whether a person would be subject to repeated FIOs. But after controlling for those factors, black residents still experienced 8 percent more repeated FIOs and were 12 percent more likely to be searched than white residents, the study found.
Neighborhoods with higher black and Hispanic populations saw more FIOs after crime and other factors were controlled for, according to the study. Hispanic residents experienced fewer repeated FIOs than white residents, the study found, but were more likely to be searched when they were stopped.
More than half of the people who experienced FIOs had no prior record, the study stated.
"This report confirms exactly what the Boston Police Department and the ACLU were told in March 2014, and what the ACLU reported nearly nine months ago: namely, that the Boston Police Department's street encounters have involved racially disparate treatment of people of color," said Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Segal said he was pleased to hear that the department is planning to adopt reforms, which include a pledge to regularly publish FIO data — a measure the ACLU recommended in October after the preliminary results were published. But, Segal said, the department can do more.
"In light of this serious evidence of disparate treatment, we hope that the Boston Police Department will also adopt additional reforms, like body cameras, which have also been embraced by other large departments," Segal said.
Evans said he has not ruled out body cameras, but that questions regarding privacy and constitutionality needed to be answered before the department could commit to a nearly $3 million-per-year expense.
"We're looking at it, but I'm not jumping into it because I think it will take everybody away from what they need to do, and that's build a stronger community," Evans said.
The department is assembling a Social Justice Task Force made up of clergy and community leaders, which will discuss the FIO policy, officer use of force, police shootings, training, hiring and promotions, and the community complaint process.
The department said Friday that it will review FIO data from 2014, and will report future FIO data annually. Officers who completed the most FIOs in 2014 will be retrained, and more antibias training will be given to all officers.
McDevitt said he had already recommended to the department that the current data be reviewed regularly within the department to monitor officers who are performing unusually high numbers of stops and to search for signs of bias. Supervisors, he said, should be trained to spot potential bias and to broach it with their officers in a constructive way.
"You can't just wait for somebody to complain; you have to monitor things," said McDevitt.
The department is also adopting another of McDevitt's suggested reforms: using data gathered on young people without gang affiliation or criminal records to connect them with social services.
Evans and his command staff will hold town hall-style meetings with the community so people can share concerns, and officers will spend more time going to community events.
The policy changes are a step in the right direction, said Mark V. Scott, associate pastor at Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, who will serve on the Social Justice Task Force. He believes FIOs are a good policing tool used responsibly, but he wants to see real-time data on how they are conducted.
"We have a violence problem. We have a crime problem. And we also have a problem with racial bias, and people do have civil rights," he said. "It's a balance. But the police need tools to be able to do an effective job."