The bias in New Bedford police and in all of us
We are defensive in New Bedford about our participation in what has haunted our country since its beginning.
Mayor Jon Mitchell, police Chief Joe Cordeiro, the New Bedford Police Union. All were more than defensive this week about the release of a report by a statewide advocacy group that found New Bedford Police have a record of profiling Black youth in recent years.
But it would be a very good thing if for just once all of us who live here would acknowledge the serious mistrust that exists between large segments of the New Bedford’s minority community and the police department.
Josh Dankoff of Citizens for Juvenile Justice talked about this chart that shows over-representation of Black and Latino men on New Bedford’s gang database. [ Screen shot ]
The Citizens for Juvenile Justice report called “We are the Prey,” disturbingly found that while only 7% percent of city residents are Black, police data shows 46% of police interactions with youth are with Black youth.
In the wake of the report’s release, much was made of the fact that the research may have been flawed in some of its methodology.
A press statement issued by the police department late Friday afternoon pointed out errors in the way it said the report counted police incidents. Chief Cordeiro himself had earlier made the same case to the Boston Globe which was first provided with the study.
Police said there were only 2,210 police incident reports while CfJJ counted 4,997. The police statement took pains to paint as serious errors what to others could easily be construed as simple disagreements over what numbers should be counted.
The police statement said that the errors resulted in some individuals being counted multiple times; Mayor Mitchell himself stressed this fact to the point he asserted that nothing about the conclusions could be trusted.
To be fair, whatever errors are in the report because of multiple counting would apply to the numbers of both Black and non-Black residents, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic individuals. So it’s hard to see how its conclusions would be any different than they were.
It’s true that there were some questionable assumptions in the analysis about the nature of a few public housing spots and schools that might detract from some of the report’s conclusions. And the study also makes generalizations about the way minority youth in the city feel about police based on interviews with just five individuals associated with activist groups.
But though the report’s methodology may have had some flaws, the issues of racial profiling that it sought to spotlight certainly rings true to many Black and Latino residents of New Bedford.
The headquarters of the NAACP New Bedford in the West End. [ Jack Spillane ]
It is not for nothing that nine years after the illegal police stop that led to the death of 15-year-old Malcom Gracia, significant parts of the New Bedford Black and Latino communities continue to speak out against over-policing in the city. It is not for nothing that the family of Guatemalan immigrant Erik Aguilar in 2010 questioned how a group of New Bedford officers could have chatted away in a gas station parking lot while Aguilar slipped toward death from an overdose.
The city paid a $500,000 settlement in the Gracia case, more than $900,000 in Aguilar’s.
In the civil suit brought against New Bedford by Gracia family’s, a judge ruled that police had no right to stop Gracia, no right to put their hands on him just because they thought he had made a gang handshake. That police stop was part of what was called the High Energy Patrol Initiative, a program devised by former police Chief David Provencher in response to then- Mayor Scott Lang and the City Council’s concerns about growing gang-related violence in New Bedford.
Yet another legacy in the city’s troubled history of policing Black people was the death of Morris Pina in a police department jail cell 31 years ago. Questions about whether the Cape Verdean man was severely beaten in his cell before he died have never been resolved to the satisfaction of many in the Black community.
Flawed or not, the Citizens for Juvenile Justice report was a badly needed and serious effort to raise issues about the equity of policing in New Bedford. It was a long overdue attempt to start a discussion with the city’s political and law enforcement establishment about what often amounts to an occupying-force approach to policing in New Bedford. It is an attempt at a data-driven study that the city itself should have done long ago.
LaSella Hall, president of the NAACP New Bedford, said that some in the city mistakenly think that because there has not been a case like George Floyd’s in New Bedford, that there have not been similar cases. With this report, he said, “our hope is that we can begin to have a real conversation.”
The New Bedford Police Department press release issued in the wake of the report paid lip service to the legitimacy of concerns about racial profiling. But then went on for most of the statement to dwell on what it said were the errors in the report.
The mayor left the heavy lifting on the nature of the data to the police. He acknowledged for the record that a lack of trust in the department by Blacks and Latinos is a problem worth paying attention to. But he put it in a way that marginalized the problem. “Just because the report lacks credibility, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking seriously the allegations in the report,” he said.
The New Bedford downtown police station with police vehicles in front. [ Jack Spillane ]
Mitchell had already lost credibility on issues of bias in policing the Black community by the way he reacted to last summer’s protests over Malcom Gracia’s death and by the window-dressing commission he appointed to look into excessive force in the New Bedford department. His appointment of Brian Gomes, long the biggest police department advocate on the City Council, to chair the Commission on Police Use of Force, crippled the group in the eyes of many city residents from the start. The commission’s decisions to meet in private, have a narrow scope, and by its own admission make only tweaks to department policy, have allowed it to essentially preserve the status quo.
For its part, the police union didn’t even acknowledge there is a problem.
The union’s Facebook page said the brotherhood is “livid” about the “disparaging and unfounded” claims of racial bias in the department in the CfJJ report.
“This type of slanted and prejudiced reporting against police departments continues to feed into radical reactions from some segments of the public and the press,” the statement read.
It is a fact that the police department under Joe Cordeiro has made some efforts to improve its relationship with Black and Latino neighborhoods. But the sad truth is that the department has yet to change its perception in the Black and Latino communities.
The year after the Gracia killing, the city worked with the NAACP and convened a summit on ways for policing to work better in New Bedford. No one, however, thinks that effort has had any kind of long-lasting effect.
When Cordeiro began his five-year tenure, he emphasized community policing -- officers were encouraged to get out of their cars at least once per shift. But the union has never been a big proponent of community policing and has spent much of its time opposing Cordeiro’s initiatives, calling for the chief to be fired and voting no confidence in him.
Whatever Cordeiro’s community policing efforts, the High Energy Patrol Initiative was not eliminated until last year, some eight years after Malcolm Gracia’s death. It was finally taken off the books in the wake of the Black Lives Matter New Bedford protests. Those protests spread across the country because the treatment that the late George Floyd received at the hands of Minnesota police struck a familiar chord with both Black and white citizens everywhere.
LaSella Hall talks about the reason it took so long to remove the High Energy Patrol Initiative from the books despite what he calls “puff” efforts like Cordeiro’s “High Five” program with grade-schoolers.
“I’m not sure police as a whole bought into community policing fully,” he said. “They did buy into the (High Energy) initiative program.”