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Boston police no longer releasing data on street investigations

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said he suspects Boston police are withholding information to avoid public criticism.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said he suspects Boston police are withholding information to avoid public criticism. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Four years ago, a report found that Boston police officers were stopping, searching, and recording observations of black Bostonians at a disproportionate rate.

Facing outrage from civil rights advocates, police officials said they would institute new antibias policies, require officers to document why they initiated a stop, and provide annual statistics on street investigations.

“We want to be as transparent as we possibly can,” then-commissioner William Evans said at the time.

But police officials stopped delivering on the promise. The department has not released data on street investigations, known as Field Interrogations and Observations, since the end of 2016 and is not currently compiling the information for the public, a department spokesman said. That has left the community — and the department itself — with no way to know whether the racial disparities in street investigations have persisted.

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“The last time FIO data was released was in 2017 and only included 2016 data, which showed that communities of color made up a disproportionate share of police stops and interactions,” City Council President Andrea Campbell said. “In order to have meaningful policy conversation and eliminate these disparities, it’s essential that BPD annually release this data, which should indeed be considered public information.”

Officers continue to file individual reports on street encounters and use the information in investigations, Sergeant Detective John Boyle said. But they are no longer compiling the data or making it public.

“We would love to see the data to see if the city has made progress — because if the city has made progress, we should recognize that,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights. “But without that data, we are left to wonder if the racial disparities that have plagued the city continue.”

Boyle said the department did not make a deliberate decision to stop publishing the data. But the department, he said, had not received any requests for updated statistics until a recent Globe inquiry, and that assembling the database is time-consuming. An employee who had compiled and analyzed the data moved to a different job in another unit within the department, Boyle said.

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Boyle subsequently said that the department may compile the information for public release in January.

“Our goal is to post information online that is frequently requested by members of the public as part of our efforts to build a more transparent and open government,” a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said.

In the 2015 study, conducted at the request of police and the ACLU of Massachusetts, researchers examined nearly 205,000 FIOs from 2007 to 2010. About 40 percent led to a frisk or search, while 24 percent were observational, meaning the subjects may not have been aware they were being watched.

Police have said the racial disparity is misleading because a small number of people are frequent targets of police observation, skewing the overall numbers. In 2015, Evans said 5 percent of people who were the subject of investigations accounted for 40 percent of stops.

The vast majority of violent crime in Boston occurs in sections of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, which have large black and Latino populations.

In response to the racial disparity, police officials instituted a new policy that forbids policing based on characteristics such as race and gender, and states that discipline may occur if an officer “engages in biased policing.”

They pledged to report FIO data annually and that officers who conducted the most FIOs would be retrained.

In 2016, Boston police released information about nearly 150,000 FIOs conducted from 2011 to April 2015, showing a reduced investigative focus on black residents.

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During that period, 58.5 percent of all FIO subjects were black, 22.8 percent white, and 13.1 percent Hispanic. Just over 74 percent of FIO subjects had “prior records reported by the officers.”

But the following year, a Globe analysis found that the numbers had shifted again, with nearly 70 percent of street investigations in 2016 involving black people. The analysis also found that the number of recorded interactions had declined dramatically — from a high of 55,684 in 2008 to 14,995 in 2016.

Espinoza-Madrigal said he suspects the department is withholding the information to avoid public criticism.

“By taking away the collection of this important data that rightfully belongs in the public domain, the department is shielding itself from public scrutiny and transparency,” he said. “It’s almost as if the department anticipates that the data will continue to reveal racial disparities and it’s trying to cover that up to avoid embarrassment.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.