SJC Rules Black Bostonians May Have Good Reason to Run from the Police

The decision cited a report from the ACLU that found evidence of racial profiling.

A black person who flees from officers in Boston may have good reason to do so, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled this week.

Citing a study that found police officers in the city were much more likely to conduct so-called “field interrogation observations” or FIO’s, with people of color, the court called the treatment of black residents by authorities a “recurring indignity.”

The decision, which was unanimous, frustrated Boston Police Commissioner William Evans and rekindled criticism from the ACLU about his department’s track record with stopping and frisking minorities.

The ruling comes after a man challenged the legality of a police investigation in 2011 that found him to be in the possession of an unlicensed .22 caliber handgun. Jimmy Warren, who is black, had run from police—who approached him because he fit the vague description of a suspect in a Roxbury burglary—and officers who caught up with him found the weapon discarded nearby. The question had been whether police could use the fact that he ran away from them as justification for stopping him, and whether they could use his fleeing against him in court. Tuesday’s SJC ruling was that they could not. Warren’s gun conviction has been vacated.

Here’s more from the ruling:

[T]he finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for FIO 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.

[T]he police were handicapped from the start with only a vague description of the perpetrators. Until the point when [Boston Police officer Christopher] Carr seized the defendant, the investigation failed to transform the defendant from a random black male in dark clothing traveling the streets of Roxbury on a cold December night into a suspect in the crime of breaking and entering.

Commissioner Evans, who was speaking to media last night about an unrelated investigation into whether a police officer used excessive force, was visibly frustrated by the decision, which comes amid tension between police and communities of color around the country.

Evans, who has sought to portray his department as one that has embraced community policing, defended his officers. “I don’t believe we target anyone because of their race,” he said. He also criticized the ACLU study that bolstered it. He called the 2015 report, which analyzed data from 2007-2010, outdated, and questioned the methods used to compile it, calling the study “tainted.”

Suffolk County district attorney’s office plans to appeal, a spokesman told the Globe.

Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, were celebrating.

“This is huge for advocates who have been trying to get courts to recognize racial profiling across the country,” Boston NAACP president Michael Curry told the Globe.