- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BOSTON (AP) - The rate at which minorities are subjected to stops, searches and frisks by police doesn’t appear to be improving in Boston in the year since the department claimed it was narrowing racial disparities in its tactics.

At least 71 percent of all street level, police-civilian encounters from 2015 through early 2016 involved persons of color, while whites comprised about 22 percent, an Associated Press review of the most recently available data shows.

That’s only a slight decline from the 73 percent that minorities comprised in such street-level encounters between 2011 and early 2015, according to data the city made available last year.

It’s also higher than the roughly 63 percent that blacks comprised between 2007 and 2010, according to a report the department released in 2015. That report didn’t include the tallies for other minority groups.

And the gap between minorities and whites in the most recent reporting period is likely higher.

Over 7 percent of all police-civilian encounters compiled in the department’s 2015 to 2016 “Field Interrogation, Observation, Frisk and/or Search” reports don’t list the civilian’s race at all.

Civil rights activists have complained for years that blacks, in particular, comprise a majority of these kinds of police interactions in Boston, despite accounting for about 25 percent of the population.

The disparity matters because it affects how some residents in largely minority communities perceive police, said Carl Williams, of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which provided the recent police data the AP analyzed.

“People feel uncomfortable talking with police when they feel they’re getting stopped unjustly,” he said.

Police Commissioner William Evans said Wednesday that the numbers, when put into context by researchers working this past year to analyze them, will show officers are focusing on the people and places where violence happening.

“The numbers are what they are,” he said. “We’ve got one of the safest cities in America, and it’s because of the job we do. If we weren’t focusing on these people in these neighborhoods, then people would be saying we weren’t doing our job.”

Mayor Marty Walsh said arrests have gone down roughly 40 percent in the past three years, partly because police are identifying at-risk youths in street encounters and intervening before they can commit more serious crimes.

“We’ve been successful with that, and we’re going to continue to do that,” he said.

Police spokesman Michael McCarthy earlier dismissed the AP review as “not appropriate and quite frankly irresponsible” because it didn’t account for variables not provided in the data, such as neighborhood crime statistics and a subject’s prior arrests and gang affiliations.

“Anything short of that is a complete disservice,” he said in an email.

Big-city police departments vary in how they collect data on such encounters and how public they make it.

New York City police, prompted by a lawsuit, have been releasing quarterly reports for years, something the Massachusetts ACLU chapter has also sued Boston to provide.

New York’s data show at least 83 percent of stops through the first three quarters of 2016 involved blacks or other minorities. From 2011 to 2014, they averaged roughly 84 percent of stops.

Philadelphia police provide regular data as part of a court order. The most recent report, which covers the first half of 2015, shows minorities accounted for 77 percent of stops during that period.

The Boston police enlisted independent researchers to conduct a deeper study of the 2011 to 2015 data last year, but that won’t be complete at least until this summer because researchers want more information from police, said Anthony Braga, head of Northeastern University’s criminal justice school and a researcher on that study.

He echoed the department’s sentiment that analysis of the raw data before his study is complete is “overly simplistic, woefully incomplete, and, quite frankly, irresponsible.”

But Shea Cronin, a criminal justice professor at Boston University not affiliated with the police data study, says looking at the citywide rates can be a valid starting point, even if it has its limitations.

He suggested the department should incorporate reviews of these and other statistics in their management evaluations to see whether specific officers, units or shifts use such tactics most often.

In an improvement on past data, the latest numbers from Boston Police provide more detail about the reasons for the police-civilian encounters and some of the actions police took as a result.

In about 21 percent of the incidents from 2015 to early 2016, for example, officers cited “reasonable suspicion” as the reason they engaged suspects. In 31 percent of the time, officer’s cited “probable cause.”

Generally, police need at least “reasonable suspicion” a crime has been, is being or will be committed in order to stop, briefly detain or frisk an individual. “Probable cause” is a higher legal threshold needed to arrest someone.

Of the more than 17,300 total incidents, officers frisked civilians about 21 percent of the time, searched them or their vehicles over 16 percent of the time, and issued a summons 2 percent of the time.

The data covering 2011 to early 2015, in contrast, provided little to no detail about why officers engaged with civilians, why a person was subsequently subjected to a search or frisk, and what the outcome of the encounters was, a previous AP review found.

The new data, however, still lack details about what, if anything, came of the stops in terms of arrests or seizures. Civil rights groups have said such information is critical to gauging whether the methods are effective.

“The question remains: Are there aggressive tactics being used?” said Darnell Williams, of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “We’re not here to second-guess what police are doing, but if there is a disproportionate amount of blacks being stopped for non-obvious reasons, then that’s a concern.”

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Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/philip-marcelo .

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