Blacks remain focus of Boston police investigations, searches
The number of people singled out for street investigations by Boston police dropped significantly in 2016, but blacks continue to make up a disproportionate share, despite the department’s efforts to reduce racial disparity, according to an analysis of police records.
Of the nearly 15,000 individuals that police observed, interrogated, or searched last year, almost 70 percent were black, the Globe analysis found. Blacks constitute about 25 percent of the city’s population.
“That is a tremendous disparity that raises concerns about the basis of those searches,” said Rahsaan Hall, who directs the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Police officials insist the statistics are misleading. They point out that certain known criminal offenders, often gang members, are frequent targets of these police encounters and observations known as Field Interrogations and Observations, or FIOs, making the racial disparity appear much broader than it is.
“It is inappropriate to draw conclusions on the race distribution without first understanding who is FIO’ed, and who is FIO’ed repeatedly,” Boston Police spokesman Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy said.
The department did not provide statistics on how many individuals were the target of multiple FIOs, or how many had criminal records, in 2016. The department’s analysis of FIOs between 2011 and 2014 found that about 74 percent of the subjects for those years had criminal records.
The most recent department statistics show that the overall number of individuals who were observed, interrogated, or searched declined by 30 percent in 2016. But they also show a stark racial disparity — a highly sensitive subject for a department that has won generally favorable reviews from community leaders.
A 2014 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts found that from 2007 to 2010, blacks were the target of 63 percent of FIOs.
In response, Boston police instituted racial profiling and bias training and explicitly banned policing based on race and gender.
Last year, the department released statistics that showed a reduced investigative focus on black residents from 2011 to 2014. In those years, 58 percent of FIOs involved blacks.
The vast majority of violent crime in Boston occurs in sections of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, where the poverty and unemployment rates remain high. Those neighborhoods, which have high minority populations, receive the bulk of police resources.
Most FIOs “appropriately focus on crime hotspots,” McCarthy said.
Law enforcement specialists said that police departments are trying to reduce violent crime while avoiding racial disparities in street investigations.
“Crime in America’s largest cities is a problem of poverty, not of race, and unfortunately, for socioeconomic reasons, they also happen to have the largest populations of minority residents,” said Steve Lurie, an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School and a law enforcement veteran. “Wherever you put most of the cops, the most stops will happen. It’s a real challenge for police managers.”
Critics said the police department’s argument was unconvincing, given officers’ longstanding focus on black residents.
“Common sense tells us there’s been a long history of racial profiling by the Boston Police Department. We should be putting the burden of proof on the department to not just say the data is confounded,” said Frank Rudy Cooper, a law professor at Suffolk University. “[Otherwise] that puts the burden of proof on the people who were stopped to explain why they’re stopped all the time.”
Cooper is studying New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, which was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 because it disproportionately targeted people of color. The percentage of black residents who are subjects of police investigation in Boston is higher than in New York, he said.
FIOs is a catch-all phrase to describe a range of investigative techniques, from simply taking note of a person on the street to questioning and searching someone.
In Boston, 63 percent of FIO reports last year involved a person being stopped, while 15 percent were observations that were documented but did not result in an interaction.
Forty-four percent were based on probable cause, meaning the officer had enough information to reasonably believe the person had committed a crime. Twenty-two percent were based on reasonable suspicion, and 14 percent on gathered intelligence.
Officers used the words “gang” or “associate” in 3 percent of FIO reports, and just 10 percent of stops made reference to the department’s gang unit. (The two categories may overlap).
But McCarthy said officers do not mention gang affiliations in all cases, and that “it is likely that the information in the database is not complete,” and represents an undercount.
Police officials are awaiting a report on the data from Anthony Braga, director of Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, McCarthy said. Braga is analyzing the stops in light of neighborhood crime levels, officer deployment, and criminal history and gang status.
Braga said that the police department’s new record management system does not allow for a more detailed, accurate analysis of any potential racial disparities in specific types of encounters.
“If multiple individuals are linked to an FIO report that involved a frisk or search, the online database will erroneously suggest that all were frisked or searched,” Braga said.
A spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh declined to comment directly on the latest statistics, but said the decline in FIOs “represents a positive trend for both the community and police.”
“The Boston Police Department works every day to strengthen relationships with each neighborhood and keep residents safe,” said Nicole Caravella. “We look forward to receiving further analysis of this public data in order to continue to make improvements at the Boston Police Department.”
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, a Boston nonprofit group, said the disproportionate focus on black residents can “contribute to an erosion of trust between law enforcement and communities of color,” he said.
“They’re less likely to trust the police or to help resolve investigations,” he said.
A review of addresses frequently associated with FIOs showed several in and around the city’s public housing developments, such as the Whittier Street Apartments in Roxbury, across the street from police headquarters.
At the complex, several young black men expressed frustration over being targeted by police simply because they live in a high-crime area.
“I feel like there can be other ways of getting information other than subjecting them to that,” said Jose I. Capo Jr., 25, a program coordinator for Teen Empowerment, a program that trains young people as community organizers.
“Every neighborhood has a bad apple, but to take that bad apple and make it how you surveil a neighborhood is an issue.”
Capo said police stopped him last fall at a public housing complex in South Boston, where he was visiting family. Two officers told him they had never seen him in the area and casually asked for his name and identification.
“I always feel some kind of way when I am stopped by the police,” said Capo. “I try not to get upset given the work that I do.”
Yusuf Ali was walking by Franklin Park to meet up with friends before Boston’s annual Carnival Day parade two years ago when he suddenly found himself surrounded by three police vehicles. Ali, who is black, said he knew what would happen next.
Two Boston police officers approached him, hands just above their guns, and demanded identification, Ali said. They asked where he was coming from and where he was headed. They told him he fit the description of a man who had stabbed someone.
The officers quickly realized that Ali was not the suspect they were looking for. But Ali, a community organizer for a civic group in Mattapan, said he has not attended the parade since, and has no plans to.
J. Larry Mayes, a member of the Boston police civilian oversight panel, said that while police face “tremendous pressure” to prevent crime, they must remain vigilant about civil liberties.
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said that “public safety is of paramount importance,” but lamented the focus on predominately black neighborhoods.
“Across the city there’s criminal activity, and drug activity,” Sullivan said. “Why does it seem the focus is solely on communities that have black residents?”