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'Reasonable suspicion' defined: Black men who run from police can't be assumed guilty

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A ruling from the highest court in Massachusetts that provides some qualification on what constitutes 'reasonable suspicion' aims to protect black citizens from racial profiling.  

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    Demonstrators hold signs during a silent march in New York to end the New York City Police Department’s 'stop-and-frisk' program in 2013. A Massachusetts court ruling found racial bias in a Boston Police Department program, and have ruled that black men stopped for 'reasonable suspicion' shouldn't be presumed guilty if they run from officers.
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Massachusetts’s highest court ruled that black men who flee voluntary encounters with police shouldn’t be looked at with greater suspicion than those who comply with consensual stops, as they may have a legitimate reason based in fear to do so.

The ruling came in a case against Jimmy Warren, a black man in Boston accused of unlawfully possessing a firearm. While searching the the city's Roxbury neighborhood for break-in suspects, police approached Mr. Warren, who fit a vague suspect description, and he ran. Officers then found an unlicensed firearm in a nearby yard and charged Warren with possession, even though he had no contraband related to the home robbery.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that police shouldn’t have stopped Warren at all, and that fleeing consensual police questioning, which doesn’t violate any law, did not indicate evidence of guilt. The charges against him were thrown out. 

“The finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for [Field Interrogation and Observation] encounters suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt,” the decision said. “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.”

At a time when tensions between black communities and law enforcement officials are high, many African-Americans, particularly men, fear the possibility that an officer may take action against them that is either unwarranted or disproportional to an offense. Tuesday’s ruling may be seen as providing some relief to the community, and pointed to a larger trend on the part of state courts, which seek to qualify what constitutes “reasonable suspicion” – a standard lower than the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonable cause” requirement that allows officers to stop people when they suspect criminal activity “may be a foot.” In 2013, a New York judge ruled New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional, saying it allowed officers to target minorities without meeting the reasonable suspicion standard.

“The courts seem to be consistently sending signals to law enforcement agencies that they have to pay closer attention to the meaning of reasonable suspicion in their interactions with the public,” Shea Cronin, a professor of criminal justice at Boston University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “They’re saying flight can be considered, amongst other factors, part of a reasonable suspicion calculus. But if you don’t have other things going along with it, it alone will not do the trick. Especially in the case where individuals might have real reason to think they should end an encounter either by walking away – or running away.”  

The Massachusetts court looked to a report from the ACLU and numbers compiled by the Boston Police Department, both of which showed racial bias in Boston’s policing efforts. In looking at police data from 2007 to 2010, the ACLU found that 63 percent of Boston police encounters with the public involved black residents, even though the demographic only comprised 24 percent of the city’s population. The police study found that black suspects were 8 percent more likely to be stopped more than once, and 12 percent more likely to be stopped and searched than white residents.

Both reports controlled for nonracial factors such as gang affiliations, prior crime history, and the rate of violence in a specific neighborhood. The police department expressed its frustration on the ruling.

I’m troubled, basically, that this decision relied on a biased report by the ACLU,” Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told The Boston Globe. He said his officers “do a great job every day taking the guns off the street, and we’re going to continue to do that ... I don’t believe we target anyone because of their race.”

Boston is hardly the only city to find racial disparities in its policing efforts. That’s why a number of departments in large cities are moving away from stop-and-frisk policies, or making reforms to ensure that citizens won’t find themselves subjected to unfair scrutiny.

Similarly, lessening the ties between a person fleeing from consensual police encounters and officers assuming they're doing so out of guilt could prove an effective way to cut back on racial profiling within Massachusetts. By making law enforcement officials more mindful of the reasons behind their stops and vague suspect descriptions they pursue, the number of citizens experiencing racial profiling could decrease.

“I think that this will force officers and departments to be more selective and more targeted in their enforcement efforts,” Dr. Cronin says. “It’s going to place more emphasis on not only training, but on supervisors ... to check officers, to review officer stops and searches to make sure that sure that they have elements that meet requirements of the Constitution.”

Racial tensions have divided Boston in the past, but the city’s police department has seen both its crime and arrest rates drop significantly in the past 18 months, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. By evaluating its own policies for racial bias and focusing on community outreach, the city has avoided the traumatic clashes between law enforcement and minority residents that have dominated some cities around the nation.

While the Boston Police Department still has work to do to limit the role of racial bias, some experts say the city is on the right path, and could set an example for law enforcement agencies that are struggling to connect with majority-minority neighborhoods in their cities.

Still, the scope of the court’s decision is limited, and applies to a fairly specific situation.

“The decision is pretty narrow,” Cronin says. “It’s not necessarily saying anybody who runs from the police isn’t subject to reasonable suspicion.”

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