Three years after sweeping law enforcement reforms were enacted in Boston to address long-standing concerns of unequal treatment, there is still a striking difference in the way Bostonians of different races experience their interactions with their city’s police force, according to new findings from a team of Harvard Kennedy School researchers. 

Not only did the research find large racial disparities in reports of police harassment and in trust in law enforcement, but it also showed a strong association between negative interactions with police and trauma and chronic health conditions.

The report was conducted by a research team at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice (PCJ) and was led by Sandra Susan Smith, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice at HKS. Smith is faculty chair of PCJ and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

The team surveyed a representative sample of 1,407 Boston residents—including 286 Black, 245 Latino, 143 Asian American and Pacific Islander, and 667 white residents—about their contact with, and trust in, law enforcement, and about the impacts that those encounters have on their lives and their communities. The survey was conducted in January and February of 2024.

The survey’s key findings include:

  • Black Bostonians report various types of police harassment at much higher rates than non-Black Bostonians.

  • In contrast to non-Black Bostonians, Black Bostonians feel a deep distrust towards law enforcement, and their distrust is strongly associated with experiences of police harassment.

  • More than half of Boston residents report that law enforcement has made their community feel safer, but rates vary by race/ethnicity and are informed by experiences of police harassment and harassment perceived to be racially motivated.

  • Among Bostonians, police harassment isn’t just predictive of distrust and feelings of community safety, it is also predictive of symptoms of trauma, especially so for Boston’s Black men.

  • For some Bostonians, most notably AAPI residents, police harassment and associated distrust and trauma symptoms are linked with chronic health conditions.

In June 2020, Boston’s then-mayor Marty Walsh formed a task force to review Boston Police policies and procedures. The move was part of a national reexamination of policing following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the wave of national protests and outrage that followed. The task force recommendations, ultimately accepted by the mayor, included expanding the use of body-worn cameras; diversifying the police force and creating a culture of inclusion and belonging; engaging officers in implicit-bias training; creating an independent oversight review board; and enhancing police use-of-force policies.

“All things considered, are there any signs to suggest that law enforcement officers treat Black residents of Boston the same as people from other racial and ethnic groups?” the report asks. “Based on results of analysis of these survey data, we have little reason to believe that Black Bostonians are treated the same as people from other racial and ethnic groups.

“Racial disparities in police harassment, including harassment perceived to be racially motivated, are large and consistent with police patterns and practices in Boston described by many in the Black community in the years and decades before George Floyd’s murder, during that year of global protest, and in the years since. It is unclear that reforms responding to Boston’s racial reckoning have done much to alter these very troubling and long-standing patterns.”

Portrait of Sandra Susan Smith

“The social costs associated with police harassment are far greater than we have imagined, extending well beyond penal system outcomes and distrust in law enforcement to include trauma and chronic health conditions.”

Sandra Susan Smith

The survey also sought to measure the extent to which encounters with police were linked with mental health vulnerabilities. They asked respondents to remember an experience with police and then were asked the extent to which they agreed with a series of statements that might be indicative of trauma.

“Black Bostonians responded affirmatively to a greater number of these statements,” the report found. While, on average, Latinos, AAPI, and white Bostonians agreed with 1.1, 1,  and 1.2 statements affirmatively, Black residents responded yes to 1.8. “Further, it is not just that a significantly lower percentage of Black Bostonians responded ‘no’ to all the trauma statements—43% relative to 65%, 63%, and 51% of Latino, AAPI, and White residents, respectively—it is also that a significantly higher percentage of Black Bostonians responded ‘yes’ to between 3 and 6 statements—34% relative to 20% of the other racial/ethnic groups.”

“A growing body of research links aggressive policing to poor mental and physical health outcomes in communities targeted for such interventions,” according to the report. “In fact, in addition to mental health vulnerabilities like depression and PTSD-like symptoms, aggressive policing practices have been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity/overweight.”

While the analysis “produced several statistically significant findings, they are not always in the direction we would predict, and the strongest associations are not necessarily for the groups we might expect.”

For example, “among Black Bostonians, self-reported high blood pressure is negatively associated with both racially motivated police harassment and distrust; a lower percentage of those who reported racially motivated police harassment and distrust also reported having high blood pressure. The opposite is true for AAPI residents, however; self-reported high blood pressure is positively associated not only with police harassment and racially motivated police harassment but also with trauma symptoms. Among Latino residents, distrust in the police is associated with high blood pressure as well.”

“As with prior research conducted in other cities, findings from this Boston-based study suggest that the social costs associated with police harassment are far greater than we have imagined, extending well beyond penal system outcomes and distrust in law enforcement to include trauma and chronic health conditions,” Smith said. “Thus, even while Boston should be celebrated for the low rates at which its residents die immediately after contact with law enforcement, we should acknowledge and address the extent to which the slow violence of police harassment and the trauma and chronic health conditions it produces diminishes both the quality and likely the length of Bostonians’ lives, especially so for Bostonians of color, and particularly for its Black residents.” 

Photography Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

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