By Sawyer Pollitt
Boston University News Service
A report compiled by Citizens for Juvenile Justice released last week alleges police in New Bedford possess an “internal culture of racial insensitivity.” The report alleges that the department stops and frisks young Black and Hispanic people significantly more than white people in the city.
Citizens for Juvenile Justice is a state-wide organization that works to improve the Massachusetts juvenile justice system.
The report looked at five years of data from the New Bedford Police Department. 4,997 “field incident reports” — a figure the police department disputes — were included, as well as a data-set of 617 “verified gang members” and testimonials from New Bedford youths, social workers and community members.
According to the report, the New Bedford Police Department has no policy that dictates how to carry out field interrogations, often called “stop and frisk” encounters. Joshua Dankoff, a Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CFJJ) Strategic Initiative Director, said these encounters indicate a serious policy problem.
“In a lot of ways, police in New Bedford are operating in a policy vacuum,” Dankoff said.
A two-page document called the High Energy Patrol Initiative guides to stop and frisk encounters in New Bedford. The goal of the initiative is to identify and arrest people who are carrying weapons. It also aims to obtain documentation from everyone else who is stopped.
The High Energy Patrol Initiative said its directive “can be perceived by some as a means of police harassment or intimidation conducted in a discriminatory manner against groups or individuals.”
According to Dankoff, field incident reports are broader than stop and frisk encounters and the New Bedford Police Department does not specifically collect stop and frisk data.
Between 2015 and 2020, over 46% of all police incident reports in New Bedford involved Black people, despite being less than 7% of the city’s population. Youths between the ages of 14 and 20 were involved in 28.5% of incident reports and 13.6% of reports within 0.1 miles of a school. 55.8% of reports happened within 0.25 miles of public housing.
“We hear conversations of wanting to form relationships with communities,” CFJJ director Leon Smith said. “That has to start with the young people.”
Additionally, the report found that there were more field interrogations carried out in lower-income neighborhoods of color.
In a neighborhood that is 50.26% Hispanic, with a median income of between $30,723 and $40,324, police filed 791 incident reports. In contrast, a neighborhood that is between 84% and 98% white with a median income of between $61,120 and $93,203 had between zero and 14 incident reports filed by police.
The report also found that only 10 police officers are responsible for 46% of all incident reports filed in New Bedford. Of the 459 reports filed under the most “prolific” officer, 84% of the officer’s incident reports involved Black or Hispanic civilians. The other nine police officers were not far behind, with the majority having Black or Hispanic civilians involved in over 50% of their incident reports.
According to the report, the New Bedford Police Department “like many police departments, utilizes a paramilitary structure that shuns questioning, much less challenging, racist behavior.”
The report credits a lack of diversity in police department leadership as a factor in this. Since the department was established in 1897, three captains have been people of color — one of whom was promoted in 2020. The department has never had a person of color serve as chief of police.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the New Bedford Police Department said that the CFJJ “displays a lack of familiarity with police record-keeping and with New Bedford itself.”
The statement said that only 2,210 field incident reports were provided to CFJJ, not 4,997. This number, police said, is “likely drawn from the number of individuals observed, many of whom were observed more than once, and do not represent unique individuals, which is also omitted in the report.”
The New Bedford Police Department will not be the only group reflecting on the report. City mayor John Mitchell said New Bedford is reviewing the report and working to improve as well.
“New Bedford has long distinguished itself among Northeastern cities as an exemplar of racial equality,” city Mayor Jon Mitchell said in an emailed statement. “We are committed to confronting any indication of systemic racism in public institutions. We will closely review the report and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that policing in our City is evenhanded.”
The City of New Bedford has attempted to address issues within the police force. After a series of Black Lives Matter protests in the Summer of 2020, Mitchell assembled the New Bedford Commission on Police Use of Force. This commission is a 19-person task force designed to address citizen concern over three use of force policies at the New Bedford Police Department.
These concerns stem from the 2012 shooting of 15-year-old Malcolm Gracia. During a stop and frisk encounter, Gracia stabbed an officer. Gracia was tased once and shot at least three times.
The stop was prompted when members of the New Bedford Police Gang Unit saw Gracia perform a “gang handshake” through CCTV video in a low-income housing project.
Several recommendations proposed by the Use of Force Commission have already been adopted by the city, including de-escalation training for police, a “duty to report” clause, a “duty to intervene” obligation and several accountability measures.
The report recommends 19 additional steps to reform policing in New Bedford including police use of body cameras, improvement in police training, investment in non-policing forms of public safety, the establishment of a civilian police oversight board and the implementation of a public-facing data portal, in order for the community to hold New Bedford police accountable.
The report compiled by CFJJ about the New Bedford Police Department is the first of many. According to Dankoff, CFJJ is waiting to compile information from officials regarding similar public records requests placed in over 15 municipalities across Massachusetts.
A version of this story appeared on The Scallop!