A black man who runs from police shouldn't necessarily be considered suspicious — and merely might be trying to avoid "the recurring indignity of being racially profiled," the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court says.
The court made that observation as it overturned the conviction of a man who was charged with carrying a firearm without a permit after he ran from a Boston police officer who, the court says in its ruling, "lacked reasonable suspicion" to try to stop him in the first place.
As member station WBUR reports, the court cited "Boston police data and a 2014 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts that found blacks were disproportionately stopped by the city's police" as it threw out the 2011 gun conviction of Jimmy Warren.
The court also cited "a factual irony" in how flight from police is viewed, and said that in this instance, a Boston police officer decided to approach Warren and a companion despite important factors: The officer was looking for three, not two, suspects, and he had been given only vague descriptions that the suspects were wearing dark clothing and a hoodie.
Some 30 minutes after the crime was reported, Officer Luis Anjos was driving in his police cruiser when he spotted Warren and another man, rolled down the passenger-side window, and yelled, "Hey guys, wait a minute."
Rather than talk to the officer, the court said, "the two men made eye contact with Anjos, turned around, and jogged down a path" into a park. They were apprehended after Anjos called for assistance.
The court wrote:
"Where a suspect is under no obligation to respond to a police officer's inquiry, we are of the view that flight to avoid that contact should be given little, if any, weight as a factor probative of reasonable suspicion. Otherwise, our long-standing jurisprudence establishing the boundary between consensual and obligatory police encounters will be seriously undermined."
Discussing how a person's race can also be a factor, the Massachusetts court said it's important to consider a recent Boston Police Department report "documenting a pattern of racial profiling of black males in the city of Boston."
Noting that black men were more likely to be targeted by Boston police for encounters such as stops, frisks, searches, observations and interrogations, the judges wrote, "We do not eliminate flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis whenever a black male is the subject of an investigatory stop."
But the judges went on to say that flight alone does not prove "a suspect's state of mind or consciousness of guilt."
The targeting of black males by police for "field interrogation and observation" — FIO — changes the equation, the court said, and "suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt."
The court wrote:
"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. Given this reality for black males in the city of Boston, a judge should, in appropriate cases, consider the report's findings in weighing flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion calculus."
According to WBUR, Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans was unhappy with the court's ruling, saying that the judges failed to consider the broader context and gave too much weight to the ACLU's analysis of the department.
The Boston police study says that since 2010, the force has made "significant changes" in the way it operates, including new training, documentation requirements, and meeting with community members and the ACLU to discuss best practices.
Some of the changes have been relatively simple, such as Commissioner Evans urging officers to hand out business cards after encounters with the public. But others have been more complicated: Earlier this month, a judge sided with Evans in his dispute with the city's largest police union over the commissioner's plan to institute a police body camera program.
As The Associated Press reported, a compromise deal had called for 100 officers to volunteer to wear the cameras in a pilot program — but after no officers stepped forward, Evans issued an order requiring officers to wear them.