Justified in fleeing police? Mixed views on Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest court, ruled this week that fleeing a police encounter may have nothing to do with guilt. Some blacks in Boston say police are too quick to judge them based on appearance.

Josh Kenworthy/The Christian Science Monitor
Cisco Carvahlo sits on the corner of Dorchester Ave. and Adams Street in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston Thursday. Mr. Carvahlo feels he’s been singled out during police traffic stops because of his race.

For the second time in his life, Mike Lawson’s driver’s license has been suspended. 

A black man with a neatly trimmed beard and a tattooed line of stars down his neck, the Milton, Mass., resident believes the accumulation of driving points that led to the loss were the result of racial profiling by police – not because he was breaking the law.

Now, he says, he is hypervigilant about any little ways he might be able to change his appearance to look less suspicious — not wearing his hat backwards, or donning a button-down shirt instead of a baggy T-shirt.

Still, when Mr. Lawson heard that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled this week that black people may be justified in choosing to flee from an attempted stop-and-frisk by police, he did not consider it a victory.

“I don’t think it’s positive at all,” Lawson says, standing outside the Fields Corner train station in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood.

Lawson wants progress in such encounters: He estimates he’s been unfairly stopped eight times by police while driving, and says he had the seats of his car “ripped apart” while police looked for drugs, even though he says he has no criminal record. 

But, he adds, “If it’s ruled that black people have the right to run from the police, it’s not right, because a lot times they could be crooked.”

His take encapsulates the fraught territory that both police and black people are negotiating as fatal encounters are again grabbing headlines – most recently, incidents in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C. 

Unrelated to guilt?

Judges in Massachusetts already are required to weigh whether a defendant’s choice to flee a police encounter stemmed from a sense of guilt or innocence – with the judgment affecting what information can be used at trial. But this week’s ruling goes further, saying that black people may be justified in fleeing for reasons having nothing to do with guilt, but rather “the recurring indignity of being racially profiled.”

For some black men in Boston, being stopped by police is a regular feature of their lives. While not arguing against a fine for speeding or any other legitimate offense, they think police officers are too quick to judge by appearance, and often feel they are treated disrespectfully without justification when stopped. 

In a bid to stem such encounters, the Massachusetts court unanimously ruled Tuesday that just because a police officer has a “hunch” that a black person is acting out of culpability, his or her decision to walk away from police could likely be “totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt.” 

The decision came in the 2011 case of Jimmy Warren, who ran away twice after police attempted to stop him and his friend, saying he matched what the court described as a “vague” description of a male suspect given by the victim at the scene of a nearby break-in. Ultimately, police arrested him at gunpoint in a backyard and subsequently charged him with unlawful possession of a firearm found in the front yard of the house. He was later convicted in a jury-waived trial in the Boston Municipal Court. The Supreme Court overturned that conviction because it ruled that police did not have sufficient grounds for stopping him in the first place, and his running did not amount to an admission of guilt.

The court based its decision on two reports, one by the American Civil Liberties Union and one by the BPD, which used the same data of Boston police encounters between 2007-2010, but interpreted them differently. The ACLU’s 2014 report said that black people made up 63 percent of police-citizen encounters, while the BPD report, controlling for gang membership and arrests, showed a lower, though still disproportionate, number. The police report also pointed out that its work targets violent crime hotspots that are normally “highly disadvantaged urban neighborhoods disproportionately populated by black residents.”

The BPD denounced the ruling, saying it was based on a biased interpretation of the data. Under Police Commissioner William Evans, it has been broadly recognized for its community policing efforts, with violent crime and arrests dropping to 10-year lows, as well as a substantial reduction in stop-and-frisk incidents between 2008 and 2013. 

 “The decision by the Court [Tuesday] is very troubling,” the BPD wrote in an email response to a Monitor query. “For it to consider studies that were never introduced into evidence or offered into the record is concerning. At the very least the court should have heard from the experts who compiled and analyzed the data. We will continue to consult with the District Attorney's office moving forward.” 

The district attorney’s office indicated it may ask for the case to be reheard. 

A deep unease

Still, personal experience and a steady stream of media reports about fatal encounters elsewhere in the country have left many young black men in particular feeling deeply uneasy.

Cisco Carvalho of Dorchester recalls a time a few years ago when he was driving back to Boston from western Massachusetts. He was pulled over for speeding along with two other cars driven by white people. He said they were all issued tickets for speeding. But then, he says, the officer, without asking permission, told him he was going to search his car. Mr. Carvahlo, an engineering student at the time, says that what ensued was a humiliating and unwarranted 45-minute ordeal to which the white people in the cars behind him were not subjected.

He says that now, the national climate of police media relations has made him more scared than he was back then.

“It’s like it’s 10 times worse,” he says. “I was just driving my mom’s car the other day, and I was driving with her, and I was just paranoid, like ‘I don’t want to hit anything.’ It’s not a good feeling.”

Another Dorchester man, Adrian Andrade, who works at Boston’s TD Garden sports arena, notes that his police record is not squeaky clean. But he says he has cleaned up his life, especially since becoming a father, and says that police still stop without having any evidence against him.

“What if I’m just at the bus stop, to pick up my son from school or something, and I just look like something – stop and frisk, that’s almost an embarrassment,” he says.

He adds lighter-skinned friends and relatives of his don’t have the same experience.

“I’ve got a Cape Verdean brother that look like Donald Trump, you know what I’m saying?” he says. “They’re not stopping them.”

But Lawson, Carvahlo, and Mr. Andrade all say they believe Boston’s police are fairer than other departments in Massachusetts and across America, and are often just doing their jobs.

Malaysia Fuller-Staten, a 19-year-old youth organizer for Teen Empowerment, a predominantly black youth social change organization, broadly agrees. However, she still thinks both parties have a long way to go in bridging the divide.

She says a key measure for improving communication and perceptions between Boston’s black community and police is for them to get to know each other better. 

“Once you build relationships it’s really hard just to see someone as a criminal,” she says.

Teen Empowerment runs events often attended by top ranking BPD officials and the mayor, where youth and police listen to each others' perspectives, sign community agreements, and sometimes play music together. But she wishes a broader range of officers would buy in.

“You’ll get the people who are already kind of down for the cause. You really want the people who are patrolling my neighborhood, or who are going to show up if I call, those are the people that I think really need to be in the room.”

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