Boston Police Data Shows Widespread Racial Bias in Street Encounters with Civilians

October 8, 2014 12:00 am

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ACLU study details stop-and-frisk problem in Boston, urges reforms to ensure fair and effective policing

October 8, 2014

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BOSTON — Boston Police Department (BPD) officers have engaged in widespread racially biased street encounters with civilians, according to a study of four years of BPD police-civilian encounter records summarized in a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of Massachusetts.

“This data from the Boston Police Department is clear and compelling: Boston needs to adopt reforms to ensure fair and effective policing,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The findings confirm what many people have long suspected: Boston police officers targeted both communities of color and people of color at far greater rates than white communities or white people.

Preliminary analysis by a BPD-selected researcher of more than 204,000 department reports of police-civilian encounters from 2007 to 2010 found that blacks were subjected to 63 percent of these encounters, even though they made up just 24 percent of Boston’s population. The analysis also showed that crime–whether measured by neighborhood crime rates, arrest records, or alleged gang membership of people subjected to police encounters–cannot justify or explain away the evidence of racial bias.

“These findings are clear evidence of racial bias in BPD policing,” said Matthew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This practice contradicts the principle of equal protection under the law, which is guaranteed by both the U.S. and Massachusetts Constitutions. We hope that we can work collaboratively with the BPD to address this problem.”

The preliminary analysis–which was shared with the BPD, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and the national ACLU–suggests that thousands of black Bostonians were observed, stopped, interrogated, frisked, or searched because of their race. Key preliminary findings, all of which control for non-race factors, include the following:

  • Young black men were more likely than young white men to be targeted for police-civilian encounters such as stops, frisks, searches, observations, and interrogations.
  • When police-civilian encounters occurred, young black men were more likely than young white men to be frisked or searched.
  • Young black men were more likely to be targeted for repeat police-civilian encounters.

The data also show that, for Bostonians of all races, the BPD has failed to ensure that police-civilian encounters comply with constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

To “stop” someone, a police officer must have an individualized and objectively reasonable suspicion that a person is involved in a crime. The Boston reports showed, instead, that in three-quarters of all police-civilian encounters, the officer’s stated reason for initiating the encounter was simply “investigate person.”

“‘Investigate person’ cannot provide a constitutionally permissible reason for stopping or frisking someone,” said Segal. “It only describes what the officer decided to do. It basically means: ‘because I said so’.”

Finally, the BPD has not shown that its stop-and-frisk tactics were effective in fighting crime. According to Department officials, officers did not file reports when encounters resulted in arrest. And, for the 204,000-plus reports that were completed, only 2.5 percent indicate that an officer seized weapons, drugs, or other contraband.

“The Boston Police Department has not provided any documents showing that it has eradicated racially biased policing, or that it now ensures that its stops and frisks are justified, despite ACLU requests for this information,” said Nusrat Choudhury, staff attorney with the national ACLU’s Racial Justice Project. “Even if reported police encounters have declined since the high rates of 2007-2010, it does not mean that racial bias has gone down at all.”

Key ACLU recommendations:

  • Require all officers who engage in police-civilian encounters–including interrogations, stops, frisks, and searches–to use body-worn cameras during every interaction with the public. Also require written or video-recorded consent whenever an officer claims that such an encounter was consensual.
  • Provide documentation–i.e., a receipt–to any civilian involved in an interrogation, stop, frisk, or search, no matter whether it was consensual or not.
  • Publish electronic data on a quarterly basis about all stops, frisks, non-consensual searches, observations, and consensual interrogations and searches, including a breakdown by race, gender, age, outcome, and the officer’s basis for the encounter and action.

A copy of the report is at:

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