Racial Profiling by Police May Encourage Black Men to Run, Court Rules

Given the history of racial profiling in Massachusetts, running can’t automatically be considered suspicious.
Demonstrators protesting the shooting death of 16-year-old Pierre Loury confront police after shutting down the Eisenhower Expressway during a march in Chicago on April 12. Police have said Loury took off running when the vehicle he was in was pulled over because it matched the description of a vehicle used in an earlier drive-by shooting. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Sep 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Massachusetts’ highest court this week called on police to bring more nuance to their understanding of “suspicious behavior.” In an unusual ruling, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that black men might run from police not because of their involvement in crimes but to avoid racial profiling. While unprovoked “flight” has long been a legally acceptable factor for law enforcement to use when deciding whether or not to make an arrest, this ruling makes that choice more complicated.

“The finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for [police encounters] suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt,” wrote Justice Geraldine Hines for the court.

The court order relied on studies from the Boston Police Department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, both of which found that black Boston residents were more likely to be stopped by police than were white residents. The choice to run “might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled,” Hines observed.

“It’s unusual for a court to acknowledge that young African American men are often unjustly targeted by police without suspicion,” Michael Haddad, former president of civil rights organization the National Police Accountability Project, told TakePart. “Unprovoked flight should be given less weight because of that history.”

The order overturned a lower court’s conviction of Jimmy Warren, who ran from a police officer in December 2011 after being identified as a suspect in a robbery. Warren was identified based on a description the court said was “vague,” limited to a general description of three black males, two of whom were wearing hooded sweatshirts. With such an imprecise description from the victim, “it was simply not possible for the police reasonably and rationally to target the defendant or any other black male wearing dark clothing,” wrote Hines.

While the court’s acknowledgment of racial profiling in policing may be rare, Haddad sees it as part of a steady, broader trend toward the consideration of such police practices by the courts. The most striking example of that shift was seen in 2013 when a historic opinion by a federal judge held the New York City Police Department responsible for its pattern and practice of racial profiling in stops and frisks of black and Latino New Yorkers.

In Floyd v. City of New York, the 2013 case, Justice Shira Scheindlin noted that NYPD officers frequently stopped people partially because of their “furtive movements,” which were considered suspicious. But “furtive movements” describes a huge range of motion in police reports—everything from changing direction while walking to fidgeting to looking over one’s shoulder. Scheindlin took issue with that breadth of options, noting in her opinion, “If officers believe that the behavior described above constitutes furtive movement that justifies a stop, then it is no surprise that stops so rarely produce evidence of criminal activity.”

The ruling from Massachusetts doesn’t give “black men a free ticket to run from police,” Haddad cautioned. Running away from an officer can still be a contributing factor when police in the state are considering whether or not to detain someone—it should simply be given less weight.

In a week when two black men have been shot and killed by police officers, a high court’s direct acknowledgement of racial profiling carries particular significance. On Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed while allegedly waiting for roadside assistance when his car broke down. He was unarmed. On Tuesday, Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed in a parking lot in Charlotte, North Carolina. Police have said he was armed and refused to drop his weapon. His family has said he was parked and reading while waiting to pick up his son from school.