AP finds Boston police inflate progress on searches, frisks
Mar. 07, 2016
BOSTON (AP) — Boston police say they're narrowing the gap between how often black residents are subjected to stops, searches and frisks as compared with whites and other ethnic groups. But an Associated Press review of recently released police data suggests the improvement is more modest than the department claims.
Information that could shed light on whether the stops were appropriate in the first place also hasn't been made public, nearly two months after the initial release of nearly 150,000 "Field Interrogation, Observation, Frisk and/or Search" reports.
More information is forthcoming, and the department stands by its initial assessment of the numbers, said police spokesman Lt. Michael McCarthy.
"We're trying to make the best interpretation of the data that's available," he said.
Researchers from Columbia and Rutgers universities are working on a deeper study of the raw data that will factor things police haven't provided in the information so far made public, such as neighborhood crime statistics and a subject's prior arrests and gang affiliations, McCarthy added.
Darnell Williams, CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said he has concerns and will wait to see what else the department provides.
"I want the stats and the rhetoric to match up," he says. "I believe police are open and listening to our concerns, but the stats haven't caught up to where their intentions are. And that's not a criticism. That's an observation."
When Boston police posted the raw data on police-civilian encounters in January, it touted the release as a major victory for transparency and accountability — and as proof it was making progress on racial disparities in the stops.
According to the department's initial analysis, blacks accounted for about 58.5 percent of all police-civilian encounters — field interrogations, observations, searches and frisks — that did not result in an arrest from 2011 to 2015, down from about 63 percent in the period covering 2007 to 2010, which had been the subject of a previous study commissioned by police.
But when looked at year by year, the numbers show the rate at which blacks were involved in police-civilian encounters between 2011 and 2015 held fairly steady at nearly 60 percent annually, the AP's review found.
Whites, by way of comparison, accounted for roughly 22 percent and Hispanics about 13 percent of the recorded incidents during those years.
And the racial disparity could be higher. Of the nearly 150,000 incidents, close to 7,000 don't contain any information about race.
"The percentages speak for themselves," says Shea Cronin, a criminal justice professor at Boston University. "It's gone down a little and it seems to be moving in the right direction, but I wouldn't describe that as a major change in the demographics."
Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Justice, said further data analysis controlling for gang behavior and other factors is a critical piece of the puzzle because Boston police are using field interrogations, observations, frisks and searches largely to crack down on gang activity.
"The goal would be to see whether that number of stops that aren't explained by gang activity has gone down," McDevitt said.
The AP's review also found that, in a majority of cases, there is little to no detail provided about why police engaged with civilians in the first place, why a person was subsequently subjected to a search or frisk, and what the outcome of the encounters was.
In over 32 percent of all incidents, for example, no reason appears to have been provided; in another 32 percent of incidents, officers simply marked down "investigative."
Among all police-civilian encounters that did not result in an arrest, 77 percent don't mention a basis for the police action. Over 14 percent cite probable cause, and other 8 percent cite reasonable suspicion.
Information about the reasons and outcomes of the stops is crucial to understanding whether police are conducting searches appropriately and not violating civil rights, says Matthew Segal, legal director for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued the department to release the data.
"Without that additional information, police cannot even measure whether its stop-and-frisk practices are achieving worthwhile goals," he said.
The data doesn't show incidents that led to arrests or seizures of contraband because in those instances, officers file a separate arrest report instead, McCarthy said.
On the reasons behind the police-civilian encounters, McCarthy said the department is redacting sensitive personal information in the reports and will provide further detail in due course.
"It's going to be extremely time-consuming, as you can imagine," he said.
Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/philip-marcelo