The Boston Police Department’s record of bias against black men means that innocent black men may have legitimate reasons to flee from officers, according to a Tuesday ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
In other words, if a black man flees an approaching police officer that wouldn’t necessarily be enough to justify “reasonable suspicion” in stopping and interrogating him, as first reported by WBUR News. Under the U.S. Constitution, “reasonable suspicion” is the minimum standard that allows law enforcement officers to conduct brief stops and detentions.
“[The ruling is] a roadmap for protecting civilians in this country,” American Civil Liberties Unit of Massachusetts (ACLUM) Legal Director Matthew Segal told The Huffington Post. The ACLUM thoroughly documented racial bias in the Boston Police Department in a 2014 report. The court cited the report in its ruling, as well as data published by the BPD.
In the ruling, the court threw out the conviction of Jimmy Warren, who was arrested in 2011 on charges of unlawful possession of a firearm. Officers were searching for suspects in a break-in and approached Warren and another man because they believed they fit the description of the suspects — black men wearing dark clothing.
Warren fled, officers pursued him on foot and arrested him. Though they found no evidence that he was involved in the break-in, they did allegedly find an unlicensed firearm in his possession.
The ruling found that Warren simply being a black man wearing dark clothing — which could apply to countless people in Boston — was not enough for officers to have “reasonable suspicion” to stop him. Additionally, the court ruled that Warren fleeing also was not cause for reasonable suspicion, since there could be good reason for an innocent black man to want to avoid Boston police:
“We do not eliminate flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis whenever a black male is the subject of an investigatory stop. However, in such circumstances, flight is not necessarily probative of a suspect’s state of mind or consciousness of guilt. Rather, the finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for FIO [Field Interrogation and Observation] encounters suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt. Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity.”
The BPD called the decision “very troubling” in a statement sent to The Huffington Post.
“For [the court[ to consider studies that were never introduced into evidence or offered into the record is concerning,” the statement read. “At the very least the court should have heard from the experts who compiled and analyzed the data.”
Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans told WBUR that the ACLUM report was biased against the police department, and he criticized the court for relying on it.
“What we were relying on was the very same data that was used by the researchers that the police department selected,” Segal told HuffPost in regards to the numbers which he added came from a research team commissioned by the BPD.
The BPD’s website states that researchers found “some racial disparities that must be addressed.” Its report notes that even when researchers controlled for factors like gang membership or criminal history, black people were 8 percent more likely to be stopped repeatedly, and 12 percent more likely to be frisked, than other individuals.
“Even if you control for things like arrests and gang membership, what the report found was that people in communities of color were being treated different, more harshly than otherwise identical communities of white people,” Segal said.
He pointed out that under the law, anyone has the right to “not engage” with police if the officers don’t have reasonable suspicion to stop them. The problem is when a person refuses to engage, often times, law enforcement may decide that refusal is suspicious behavior. This logic can effectively trap people into engaging with police, but Segal says this ruling is a step away from that.
“It has a chance to profoundly influence policing in Massachusetts,” he said. “It has a chance to profoundly protect people in Massachusetts from undue police violence, and it has a chance to influence decisions all over the country.”
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