When former Newton resident Tim Duncan and his wife were walking to the grocery store in May, they expected a leisurely stroll. Instead, Duncan, a Black man, found himself staring at a gun.
“We wanted to spend some quality time together,” Duncan said. “All hell broke loose after we turned the corner.”
Newton police officers stopped Duncan and his wife while looking for a murder suspect thought to be in the area.
The officers soon realized Duncan was not the man they were looking for, he said. However, Duncan, a former deputy athletic director for external affairs at Northeastern University who spoke out publicly about the experience last summer, said he believes the incident is an example of racial profiling.
“None of us should be stopped in that manner — just because I was a tall, Black man,” he said. “I wasn’t policed the way other folks are policed.”
Newton’s police chief and the mayor apologized to Duncan after his encounter with officers, and also had a task force review the incident.
In an interview, the city’s new interim chief, Howard Mintz, said officers had proper justification for the stop, noting the murder suspect police sought was found two days later in the same area.
“We're allowed to detain by actually stopping somebody if we can articulate fear of the person being armed or dangerous,” he said, “and it certainly met all those criteria."
With the country engaged in a reckoning around race and policing, encounters like Duncan’s have fueled calls for change in how police carry out their duties, including in Massachusetts.
Lawmakers here have passed a series of measures since 2018 to address inequities in the criminal justice system, including a new law to enhance transparency and accountability for local police.
Among them is a new mandate for the state to gather information on all arrests, providing researchers and citizens alike an accounting of who police take into custody.
While that effort is still under development, an early collection of data published last fall provides some insight into a key metric: the racial composition of arrests.
That data, submitted by local police across the state, suggests in some communities, people who are Black or African American were arrested at disproportionately high rates, relative to their overall share of the population, according to a new analysis by NBC10 and students from Boston University’s Justice Media Computational Journalism co-lab.
In Cambridge, for example, close to 40% of all people arrested during a recent 10-year period were Black, according to data the police departments submitted to the state. Black people comprise a much smaller share of the city’s population — a little more than 10%, according to figures from the U.S. Census.
Experts caution comparing arrests with the city’s residential population is an imperfect calculation. The racial makeup of any community fluctuates day to day, based on employment and other factors. And importantly, the state data does not show where the people who were arrested reside.
But advocates for criminal justice reform say the numbers raise important questions about how police in Massachusetts are deployed.
“Why are the police being called?” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “What are they being deployed to handle? And how are they interacting with Black people in their communities?”
The arrest data is from police department records gathered by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security per a 2018 criminal justice reform law meant to increase transparency in policing.
The numbers are displayed on a new crime statistics website, which launched in August 2020.
To explore arrests on the local level, the NBC10 Boston Investigators teamed up with students from BU’s College of Communication and BU Spark!, an incubator and experiential learning lab for computer science and engineering projects.
The BU team found not all cities and towns in Massachusetts provided the same amount of information, with some reporting records dating back more than two decades, and others only a few years.
To measure disparities in arrests, students identified police departments that submitted arrest data for all years from 2010-2019, then merged the figures with residential population data from 2019, if available, or the most recent census numbers.
Across the entire group of 273 communities, about 15% of all people who were arrested were Black or African American. By contrast, the residential population of those communities was about 6% Black/African American. Statewide, an estimated 8.2% of people are Black/African American.
We found similar patterns in large cities and more suburban communities alike. In Newton, for example, the disparity was about 16 percentage points.
Experts interviewed by NBC10 cautioned a number of factors contribute to disparities in crime, including income and education.
Lorie Fridell, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, said biases manifest themselves in policing, but also in other parts of everyday life.
“There's a lot of societal issues that produce these types of disparity data,” said Fridell, an expert on racial profiling who conducts implicit bias training for police.
“We shouldn't immediately jump to the police and assume that they're doing something wrong,” she said.
Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute for Race and Justice at Northeastern University, said comparing census data to general arrests is not always indicative of bias. He said comparing resident arrests to the residential population produces clearer numbers. The state arrest database does not publicly disclose the neighborhood in which arrested individuals live.
“When we look at the community residential population and the people arrested, it fails to account for the fact that people go to other communities,” McDevitt said. “They go to other communities to commit crime. They go to other communities to shop and to work.”
‘Race permeates everything that we do’
One local police chief said the disparity in arrests is striking.
Branville G. Bard Jr., police commissioner for the Cambridge Police Department, looked over the arrest disparity data on Cambridge, which shows the difference between Black arrests and Black resident population was about 28 percentage points between 2010 and 2019, according to police figures.
Bard was appointed commissioner in 2017 and previously worked as chief of police and director of public safety for the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s police department. He served multiple roles in the Philadelphia Police Department including police inspector and police captain for the 22nd District and is the author of the 2014 book “Racial Profiling: Towards Simplicity and Eradication.”
Bard, who received his doctorate in public administration from Valdosta State University, said arrest disparity data collected as part of the law is “necessary” to analyze in the broader context of policing. He said the department is committed to reversing racial disparities in arrests.
“We live in a society where race permeates everything that we do,” Bard said. “We sometimes try to ignore that fact or try to act like it doesn't exist, or that it doesn't impact what we do. But I think that's a mistake.”
Bard said while the number of Black people arrested in Cambridge has decreased over the years, the community should still be vigilant.
“The key is not to fall for the trap of celebrating the fact that that number is cut in half and to focus on the real problem, which is the disproportionality of the arrests of Black people in Cambridge and in the larger society,” Bard said.
Jennifer Paster, community services lieutenant at the Brookline Police Department, wrote in an email that in 2019 the department had 343 total arrests, and of those about 19% — or 65 — were residents.
Police conducted 38 field interrogations in 2019, she wrote, and out of those about 34% — 13 suspects — were Black. She said in an email none of the stops were “self-initiated police activity.”
In Brookline, there was a difference of about 26 percentage points between Black population and Black arrests in the community, according to a comparison of the arrest data and the most recent census data for the city.
Paster wrote Brookline is working to train its officers on fair policing practices.
“We are constantly re-examining ways we can better provide police services to our community,” Paster wrote. “Our policies and our training are constantly evolving to this end.”
She pointed to how all officers in the department completed 40-hour crisis intervention team training in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Annual training, she wrote, includes profiling issues such as traffic stops, gender identity bias and hate speech identification.
Transparency in public safety
Hall, of the ACLU, said more detailed information from police departments about arrests, including offense types, locations and officers involved could help to clarify the numbers.
“I wasn’t surprised, but I was very disappointed,” Hall said about disparities in the arrest data.
McDevitt said it is important for police agencies to analyze their arrest data. While smaller municipalities have fewer means to do so, he said, they could potentially include graphs showing the arrest trends over time and explain any disparities.
“There are ways that police departments can display their data, provide their data, that allow for a little bit better interpretation,” McDevitt said.
Mintz, who previously served as Newton police chief for more than three years, and is now leading the department on an interim basis, said police mandated implicit bias training prior to his retirement in 2015, and they continue to educate officers regularly on issues of race.
A liaison from the Newton Police Department also meets regularly with Families Organizing for Racial Justice, a group of Newton families helping children learn about issues of power and inequality.
“We're all products of socialization,” Mintz said. “We all grew up in an environment where there have been difficult issues regarding race and race relations, so a lot of training is geared to make sure it doesn't interfere with our judgment."
Duncan said the narrative around arrests is bigger “than just what happens in the communities” as Black people are “positioned as being a little bit more angry, a little bit more violent than the general population.”
“It goes back to the core, the foundation of our country,” Duncan said. “And I think if that is the thought process coming in, then it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Nikita Jakkam and Osama Alshaykh contributed to this report.
ABOUT THE DATA: To examine arrest data from police department records gathered by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, we merged it with U.S. Census data showing racial demographics of all cities and towns in the state.
We used the most recent available census data on racial demographics available for each city and town. In some cases, this was 2019, and for others the most recent data was from 2010.
For arrest data, we excluded all of 2020 and also any arrests where race was listed as “unknown.” We also eliminated arrests handled by university and college police. We excluded cities or towns that didn’t consistently report arrest data from 2010 to 2019. In cases where individuals were arrested for multiple crimes during one incident, the data reflects the most serious offense, according to the EOPSS.
To produce this story, NBC10 partnered with Boston University's Justice Media Computational Journalism co-lab, a collaboration between the College of Communication and BU Spark!, an incubator and experiential learning lab for computer science and engineering projects.