“I was up at the park by Dorchester High,” Giovanni Marchaneo says, pointing over his shoulder in the direction of the nearby high school. “I was walking, me and my friend, it was only two of us, and the police came.”
Marchaneo is sitting on the steps outside of the Ashmont MBTA station at the crossroads of Ashmont Street and Dorchester Avenue. Surrounded by his girlfriend and friends, he recounts one of the many times he has been stopped by Boston Police officers.
“So, they stopped me, took my bag, and opened it up.” He motions to the school bag laying at his feet. “They made me open up my laptop and put in my password and everything just so I could prove that it was my laptop, because they felt as though it might have been stolen.”
Marchaneo, now 18 years old, says he was first stopped by the police when he was 15. Since then, he has been stopped by police so frequently that he can’t settle on a precise number.
“Truthfully, I don’t even know how many times. It happens pretty often. You get used to it after a while, you really do. It gets normal.”
The incident Marchaneo is describing falls under the Boston Police Department’s categorization as a “Field Interrogation and Observation.” According to data released by the Boston Police Department, nearly 34,000 Field Interrogation and Observations (FIO) were reported in 2014 alone. Although not all of these reports include searches or even interactions with citizens, many are attached to troubling stories like Marchaneo’s. Most of those being observed, interrogated, or stop-and-frisked are people of color.
In 2014, around sixty percent of FIO reports included black individuals. Less than twenty-three percent of Boston’s population was black that same year, according to the United States Census Bureau.
Kade Crockford, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology for Liberty Program, says FIO is about not only targeting individuals of color, but also their communities.
“The primary purpose of the stop and frisk program… is to learn about specific communities and to document facts about them, their habits, their associations, and their behaviors,” Crockford said. “Because of the racial disparities in stop and frisk programs here in Boston, and in other major cities, it seems pretty clear that the program is a street level surveillance system targeting Black and brown people and communities.”
When the FIO data is presented geographically, there are distinctly high concentrations of FIO reports in neighborhoods largely populated by people of color compared to predominantly white areas of the city.
Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, opposes the ACLU’s categorization of FIO as a stop-and-frisk program and says the BPD uses these stops as a vehicle to fight gangs.
“I would think that the analysis that I have seen shows a concentration in neighborhoods that have active gangs more than other places.”
McDevitt also believes that FIO stops involving innocent individuals may result in furthered tension and continued mistrust between communities of color and police.
“We find that in all of our studies, cops search and find stuff on somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of the people that they search. That means 75 to 90 percent of the people they search don’t have anything on them... that is a source of tension in the community and [it creates] distrust in the police.”
The Movement for Black Lives has recently created mainstream conversation around systematic racism from numerous stories of police misconduct nationwide, signaling a deep sense of distrust in police from people of color. This loss in trust from personal experience and increasing consciousness of national stories of injustice has a very real impact on communities.
A study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice explored these concerns through the lens of New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program. The study, which included surveying and interviewing youth who had been stopped at least once by police, found these stops had a direct correlation with trust in law enforcement. The study found, “for each additional stop in the past year, young people were eight percent less willing to report to police their own future violent victimization.” Over half of the respondents said they would not feel comfortable asking a police officer for help if they were in trouble.
Current Dorchester resident Elijah P., 28, was stopped by police for the first time as a teenager in Dedham, Massachusetts.
“Someone called the police on me because they thought I was suspicious and the cops came and they were asking me a bunch of questions and I kind of got upset about it because I’m just minding my own business.”
Standing on busy Washington Street in Dorchester wearing a crisp white collared shirt with a Bible tucked under his arm, Elijah P. explains how that first stop has had a lasting negative effect on his view of police.
“It starts to affect your thinking, and you start to think all police are like that,” Elijah P. says. “It just really creates a divide in this country, in the communities. That’s why the world is the way it is today, because of preconceived notions or prejudices that people hold to stereotypes that we let exist.”
Marchaneo echoes this sentiment.
“I know a lot of people, that if there was something going down in the area, ain’t nobody going to call the police,” Marchaneo says. “And it’s not because we don’t want to.”
Jennifer Fratello, the principal investigator on the Vera Institute study, is particularly interested in the long-term negative impact on safety as a consequence of pervasive mistrust in police from stop-and-frisk.
“You’re creating a whole generation of kids who don’t like you, don’t trust you, and won’t cooperate. What’s that going to look like five years from now, ten years from now? We need to understand what the scope of the issue is.”
In a study published in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, there is a correlation made between perception of equity in procedural justice with more cooperation with police officers and even other community members. Cooperation is connected with safety, and when citizens do not trust the police, they are less likely to cooperate with their enforcement of law.
Some Boston organizations are working with city communities to find solutions to this problem. Teen Empowerment is a non-profit aimed at curbing this issue, implementing police programs to create and sustain relationships between youth organizers and police officers. Executive Director Stanley Pollack recognizes the magnitude of this challenge and believes programs like Teen Empowerment could have more crime fighting potential than FIO.
“Every person [the police] know is human capital that will help them reduce the numbers of stops they need to make and the number of questions they need to ask, and all that,” Pollack said. “This relationship building stuff is not just kind of soft public relations, it is an essential crime fighting strategy, and it will help reduce the need to do so much investigation...it really has a dynamic impact on shifting the police culture away from a kind of negative, militaristic, occupying force into, you know, part of the community.”
One of many youth organizers hired and trained by Teen Empowerment to engage publicly with communities and police officers is Taya Hopkins, a 17 year-old Boston Latin Academy student. Hopkins was once confronted by police while running to catch a bus home in the evening. She says an unmarked car stopped on the street beside her and multiple officers jumped out, then physically grabbed her. According to Hopkins, the police were looking for a robbery suspect that was described as a six foot male. She is just over five feet tall.
“Now, when I’m walking down that street, I watch my back more,” she said. “Isn’t it supposed to be when the police do something you are supposed to feel safe? Now I’m not even looking behind me for someone that could be hurting me, I’m looking for police who are trying to hurt me.”
Hopkins and another youth organizer, 18-year-old Malaysia Fuller-Statan of Roxbury, are taking a break from rehearsal for Teen Empowerment’s Peace Conference outside of the Jeremiah E. Burke High School auditorium in Dorchester. The Peace Conference is a culmination of the year’s work in youth-police engagement presented as a theatrical production. The play features real life Boston police officers, but both Hopkins and Fuller-Statan agree that the “right” police are not becoming involved.
“Like, we have community service officers that their main job is to do community service, and that is great and all, but y’all are just community service officers so you are not the ones that are arresting us on the street.” says Fuller-Statan. “How does it really help our cause that you’re in here learning about how great the community is, but the people who are actually interacting with the community aren’t hearing anything about it.”
But, for Hopkins, even knowing the name of a police officer is a step in the right direction.
“Now that I know police officers names, it is just like you get a little associated. Just that simple thing can help build a relationship with the police. Because once you have one bad experience, it makes the whole thing feel bad. But then it’s the little good experience that builds you back up to saying it is not everybody that is bad.”
For police officers who work in neighborhoods where trust is limited, attempts of community outreach are met with skepticism. Establishing trust when there is so little to begin with means that with or without good intentions, it may not be perceived as genuine. For youth like Marchaneo, a mutually respectful relationship with police may be out of the question.
“I remember one time I was up at the basketball court and the police came over and tried to play with me, and I’m just like no,” he said. “We don’t associate with y’all, because they do use dirty on the regular.”
Pollack hopes to prevent any more stories like Marchaneo’s with further investment in community programs.
“They should see themselves as a connector, not as a suppressor,” he says of the police.
Instead of trying to simply engage with youth and people of color on the basketball court after the damage has already been done, the police department has the opportunity to aggressively implement systems for change. As Hopkins illustrated, that could begin with an introduction and their name.
The Boston Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.