BPD’s Race Problem: In the Wake of Ferguson, Local Activists Are Targeting Alleged Abuses at the Boston Police Department

Photo By Luciof via Wikimedia Commons

Citizens, community leaders and activists gathered outside the Boston Police Station at 1 Schroeder Pl. on Thursday, 9 October 2014 to rally against racially biased policing. The event came one day after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts released a new report that found racial bias in police-civilian street encounters, and nearly two months after the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Drew national attention on the issue of police brutality.

The report confirmed what many communities of color already knew: Police-civilian encounters are racially biased and disproportionately target young black men. In over 204,000 documented encounters, 63.3% of targeted civilians were black. African Americans make up 24.4% of Boston’s population, making the stop and frisk actions extremely disproportionate. Further, more than 200,000 encounters led to no arrests, and only 2.5% led to seizure of contraband. Even after allowing for “crime, alleged gang affiliation and other non-race factors,” as the report put it, the number of police-civilian encounters was based on the neighborhood’s concentration of black residents.

“As the Black population increased as a percentage of the total population, so did the number of police encounters,” the report stated. The reason police gave for 75% of the encounters was simply “investigate person,” a phrase that describes only what the officer did, but not why.

The ACLU drew their data from Field Interrogation, Observation, Frisk and/or Search (FIOFS) Reports gathered between 2007 and 2010. Before the report, data on street encounters was not publicly available — although a 2004 study by Northeastern University did find racial bias in Boston Police Department (BDP) traffic stops. The report is the result of a 2010 agreement between the ACLU and BDP. The agreement provided that “then-BPD Policy Advisor Anthony Braga, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, would work with the BPD to ‘code’ the FIOFS Reports into an analyzable form. Dr. Braga agreed that he would then consult with independent scholars, including one suggested by the ACLU of Massachusetts, to analyze the data.” The study is continuing with more current data.

The Boston Coalition for Police Accountability — an alliance of about 40 organizations, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Black and Pink, Bikes Not Bombs, Alternatives for Community and the Environment, Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project, and Black Lives Matter Boston — organized Thursday night’s rally. Rally participants demanded the same three reforms proposed by the ACLU to help control racially biased policing:

 

  1. All officers who engage in any police-civilian encounters must wear and use body-worn cameras for every interaction with the public,
  2. BDP must provide a receipt to any civilian involved in a stop, frisk, search or consensual interview and
  3. Police must publish, on a quarterly basis, electronic data on all encounters, including stops, frisks, searches and interviews, and must include a breakdown of race, gender, age and the reason for the encounter.

 

Rally organizers invited youth to share their stories with the crowd. Allain Cherenfant told the crowd about being pulled over three times in the last six months.

“Each and every time I was stopped, with my license in hand and registration in hand, they asked if the car was mine. I don’t think they should challenge me on the ownership of the car, with all the proof there,” Cherenfant explained.

When the emcee asked him how that made him feel, Cherenfant replied, “Angry and helpless. It made me question if I should drive through certain neighborhoods.” Cherenfant said he often has to drive an hour out of town to pick up his father from work, but his experiences make him question if it is okay to take on that responsibility. However, Cherenfant added that he has showed up at Black Lives Matter rallies and the evening’s rally, which means organizing with others is his response to unfair policing.

Brandi Artez also shared a story about “driving while black.” According to Artez, Boston police pulled her over while she was driving her new car, a college graduation gift from her mother. She did not have an inspection sticker, but the law gave her seven days to get one. Artez says that the officer told her to get out of the car, and told her that the vehicle identification number did not match. Artez the says she waited for an hour while the police deliberated on whether she stole her own car or not.

“I thought, ‘Why was this happening to me? Why is this happening to us?’” Artez explained. A Roxbury Community College alum, Artez now attends Northeastern University and hopes to be a public defender.

A youth from the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project also spoke. She explained that one day she was waiting outside her aunt’s house while her girlfriend drove around the corner to find a parking space. A police officer was on the street, keeping watch. The officer reportedly came over and told her to stop and wait. She told the officer she knew her rights and that he had no reason to stop or frisk her. She said the officer then slammed her to the ground, cuffed her and said he saw her make an “illegal drug transaction.”

“No, you saw me be black,” she replied. She said that she was angered, but now she uses that day to teach others youth their rights.

A college-aged student named Jay described being harassed by campus police at the college he attended. “It’s an impossibility for black life to live anywhere,” he said. “Nothing will protect you. Not an Ivy League education, not a good job, not a nice suit.”

The emcee asked Jay for his solution. “Fuck shit up,” Jay replied — “actively reimagining” the system, making it fairer and safer for black life. The first step, Jay explained, is to “read, learn, learn about you, your body, your situation. Learn about your safety and learn how to help others like you.”

Organizers also mentioned the families of Massachusetts men shot and killed by police: Burrell Ramsey-White, Mark McMullen and Denis Reynoso. Protestors displayed pictures of Ramsey-White and other victims of police violence from across the country on stylized red-and-black signs.

Clara Sheffield, Ramsey-White’s mother, spoke to the crowd. On 21 August 2012, police pulled her son over. He was driving a Cadillac registered to another man who had an active arrest warrant. Ramsey-White — who Sheffield said police beat in a previous incident — fled the scene, leaving his license with the officer who pulled him over. The two police pursued Ramsey-White, and Officer Matthew Pieroway shot and killed him, saying he was armed and refused to drop his gun.

“My life has not been the same,” Clara Sheffiled said. “It’s hard for me to stand here and tell my story because I’ve been locked in my home ever since. No resources for me. I can’t yell and scream because they’ll say I’m an angry black woman. But I’m here tonight as an angry mother who has lost her child.

“Police officers, you need to start a fund because you keep killing our sons,” she continued. “I should not be begging for a headstone for my son!”

The Suffolk District Attorney’s Office cleared Officer Pieroway of any wrongdoing in 2013, but Sheffield is not done sharing her family’s story.

The family of McMullen also sent a statement to be read at the rally. Police shot McMullen outside of the city limits after a chase.

“The police have yet to thoroughly investigate matters … but have awarded both shooters a citation for valor, for ‘heroically’ shooting an unarmed black man buckled into a crashed car,” wrote McMullen’s father. “Our country does not require the police to account for all such shootings, nor that these be transparently and objectively reported.”

The rally ended with members of Black Lives Matter Boston loading into a van and taking off to attend the Ferguson October events in Ferguson, Mo. over the long weekend.

Going forward, the new data should help move policy changes and organize communities. “Data is useful for bringing the message to people who wouldn’t otherwise listen,” said Johannes Wilson, a campaign coordinator with Youth Against Mass Incarceration. “It’s useful in impacting institutional change, but it’s also helpful for building more energies in our communities, and we can use this momentum to build more community power.” He added that community power can take the form of anything from concrete knowledge of one’s rights to an organized cop watch that keep tabs on police actions to court support.

According to Wilson, people need to better understand how police criminalize poor communities and communities of color. He pointed out that data helps demonstrate the link but said that people also need to get their stories out there. “There are a lot of stories we don’t hear. Police have a lot of control over the narratives we hear,” Wilson said.

Indeed, the ACLU report suggested that plenty of encounters with police go unreported and questions the accuracy of police records on encounters with Latino citizens — mainly because the options for race on FIOFS reports may not accurately reflect stops of Latinos.

Wilson felt that police wearing body cameras will help shift the narrative around police brutality. On that front, the recently formed Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT) officially introduced itself and its mission in the wake of the ACLU’s release. Members of BPCAT have canvassed large segments of Boston’s neighborhoods, compiling stories of residents who feel that police have wrongly targeted them due to their age, gender or race. BPCAT has also built relationships with local groups like the ACLU, the Harvard Black Law Student Association and Digital Fourth. The group has two sets of policy initiatives that it eventually plans to present to the Boston City Council, Mayor Walsh and top-ranking officials within the Boston Police Department.

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