A small sign of hope on this dark day for the movement for black lives.
Today we lost two more African-Americans to the police: Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. And we know what comes next: the political fighting starts, the protestors get labeled “agitators” and apologists start to spin the usual stories about how they looked armed, or were disobeying police orders, more systemic discrimination gets turned up in more departments.
But today there is also a bright point in the perennial battle to teach the police and the political establishment that black lives matter. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court — the state’s highest court — has come as close as we can expect any high court in the United States to come in the near future to an outright endorsement of the movement for black lives. The Court outright ruled that it’s rational and understandable for black people to run from the police because, and this is a direct quote, of the “indignity of racial profiling.” And unless I’m missing some dissent that hasn’t come out yet, the decision is unanimous.
“He fit the description.”
Commonwealth v. Jimmy Warren was a case about a black man who was stopped because he “fit the description.” He fled from the police, and when they caught him, they also found an unlicensed weapon nearby. They got a conviction for the unlicensed weapon, but he challenged it on appeal on the grounds that they had no grounds to stop him in the first place.
The relevant legal rule is that the police have to have “reasonable suspicion” before they detain someone. But the Massachusetts high court found that the police did not have reasonable suspicion, and reversed his conviction. Their explanation why is nothing less than an indictment of racist policing.
First, they called out the classic “fits the description” bullshit. Here’s the Court, lightly edited for clarity, to remove internal citations and quotation marks, etc.:
First, and perhaps most important, because the victim had given a very general description of the perpetrator and his accomplices, the police did not know whom they were looking for that evening, except that the suspects were three black males: two black males wearing the ubiquitous and nondescriptive “dark clothing,” and one black male wearing a “red hoodie.” Lacking any information about facial features, hairstyles, skin tone, height, weight, or other physical characteristics, the victim’s description contributed nothing to the officers’ ability to distinguish the defendant from any other black male” wearing dark clothes and a “hoodie” in Roxbury. With only this vague description, it was simply not possible for the police reasonably and rationally to target the defendant or any other black male wearing dark clothing as a suspect in the crime.
That’s already huge. The Supreme Judicial Court just slapped the police down for claiming that they had the power to do anything based on a “description” that fit half the black men in town. But it just gets better.
“Hey buddy, I’d like to talk to you.”
See, one of the things the police claimed, and the lower court accepted, was that the police had reasonable suspicion to detain him, because when the cop came up to invite Warren to “voluntarily” talk to him, Warren ran away.
This is another classic police move: it turns out the initial conversation isn’t really voluntary after all, because exercising your right to not participate in the conversation just gives them an excuse to involuntarily interrogate you. But the Court was having none of that noise. First, it acknowledged that the doctrine as it stands is nonsensical (even as it reluctantly retained it):
First, we perceive a factual irony in the consideration of flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion calculus. Unless reasonable suspicion for a threshold inquiry already exists, our law guards a person’s freedom to speak or not to speak to a police officer. A person also may choose to walk away, avoiding altogether any contact with police. Yet, because flight is viewed as inculpatory, we have endorsed it as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis.
But then it dropped the bomb.
Judicial anti-racist mic drop:
Second, as set out by one of the dissenting Justices in the Appeals court opinion, where the suspect is a black male stopped by the police on the streets of Boston, the analysis of flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion calculus cannot be divorced from the findings in a recent Boston Police Department (department) report documenting a pattern of racial profiling of black males in the city of Boston. According to the study, based on FIO [Field Interrogation and Observation] data collected by the department, black men in the city of Boston were more likely to be targeted for police-civilian encounters such as stops, frisks, searches, observations, and interrogations. Black men were also disproportionally targeted for repeat police encounters. We do not eliminate flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis whenever a black male is the subject of an investigatory stop. However, in such circumstances, flight is not necessarily probative of a suspect’s state of mind or consciousness of guilt. Rather, the finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for FIO encounters suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt. Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity. Given this reality for black males in the city of Boston, a judge should, in appropriate cases, consider the report’s findings in weighing flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion calculus.
Let me translate that for you. Because of racial profiling, the court refused to allow the police to infer that a black man who ran away from them was guilty of something.
Ordinarily, the police could say that running away meant he was guilty of something, but because there’s so much evidence that the Boston police are flat-out racist, black people have plenty of reason to run from them, reason that has nothing to do with being guilty of anything.
I know it doesn’t sound like much behind all the legalese, but this is really huge. A state Supreme Court just officially acknowledged that it’s perfectly reasonable for black people to run from the cops, because of systemic police racism. This is a much, much, much needed sign of hope as we see more police killings of black folks piling up.
Black lives matter.