Massachusetts had the second-lowest number of fatal police shootings per capita in the country over the past five years, according to new data released Wednesday from the Washington Post.
Of those fatal shootings, Black and Hispanic people were disproportionately affected: roughly a quarter of the victims were Black people, who represent nine percent of the state population, and 20% were Hispanic people, who make up 11% of the state. And people with apparent mental illness died at a rate well above the national average.
The state’s low ranking with 35 fatal shootings out of 7 million people — coming in second lowest per capita to Rhode Island, which had four among a population of about 1,000,000 — can be attributed to a number of factors, according to criminologist and Northeastern professor James Alan Fox.
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“In general, Massachusetts tends to have a relatively low crime level compared to many other states, and also has a relatively low level of gun ownership,” Fox said. “That means there’s a much smaller chance that police are going to be in a situation where they must use lethal force against someone who has a gun. So this is pleasant news, but not surprising given the nature of our state.”
Fatal police shootings, as demonstrated by the data, are also more likely to affect minority populations, and because the population of Massachusetts is 81% white, those shootings are, in general, less likely to happen here, Fox says. “The shootings are per capita,” Fox said, “but that does not take into consideration the demographic makeup of the state.”
About 31% of the victims of fatal police shootings in Massachusetts showed “signs of mental illness,” according to the database.
Of the 5652 fatal shootings tallied by The Post nationwide over the five year period, 24% were Black, 17% were Hispanic and 23% had indications of mental illness.
“The fact that almost a third of the individuals killed by police in Massachusetts were identified as suffering from some kind of mental illness… it’s quite sad,” Orren Sellstrom, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said in an interview with GBH News. “It really demonstrates the need for reform on multiple different levels for police training, not only in the racial justice sphere.”
Sellstrom and Lawyers for Civil Rights brought a lawsuit against the Boston Police Department in 2016 for the police shooting of Terrence Coleman, a Black man with schizophrenia who was shot by Boston police in Dorchester after his mother called for help.
“His mother called for medical assistance and instead was greeted by police who ended up shooting her son dead,” Sellstrom said. “So that statistic really jumped out at me in this database showing that almost a third of the individuals shot by police in Massachusetts suffer from mental illness. I think that's every parent's nightmare.”
Dorchester resident Dina Willis says she lives that fear every day. “I have a 21-year-old autistic son, six feet tall, two hundred and thirty seven pounds,” Willis told GBH News at a demonstration in Franklin Park Wednesday. “He could look like any gang member. Nobody is going to know that he's a autistic kid.”
Willis says she brought her son to the local police station to introduce him to the officers, fearing that he might be mistaken for someone else, or might not be able to cooperate with police during a pivotal moment.
“And they're like, 'Oh, we’ll connect you with the community officers.' But the community officers are not the detectives who come down the street when they come looking for the bad guy,” Willis said. “If they just run up on my son and he flinches because he doesn’t know how to respond to the police, they're gonna snatch him up.”
Governor Charlie Baker vowed to pass a police reform bill that would address police use-of-force and racial bias policies by the end of this year, growing emotional at a news conference Thursday. “We’ve worked hard ... with our colleagues in local government and law enforcement, with the Black and Latino legislative caucus, and with others,” Baker told reporters, “to develop a series of initiatives and ultimately a bill that would enhance transparency and accountability in law enforcement."
Under Baker’s proposed bill, which he unveiled in June, police officers could receive bonuses of up to $5,000, should they choose to take on additional racial bias and de-escalation training.
“Anything along those lines is a start, but we really need to be rethinking our systems in a much more broad based way than, you know, a little money that is thrown at a training program,” Sellstrom said. “It really needs to be a case of start-to-finish reform, where we're looking at who we are recruiting to be police officers, what we think police are for, what kind of situations we think are appropriate for police to handle.”
Sellstrom also urged transparency and better tracking abilities for the public, “so that the public knows what police are doing and that when they step over the line,” he said. “When they are engaged in violence against people that they are supposed to be helping, they need to be held accountable for that.”
Though the Washington Post team gathers information not just from police reports but from local news, social media and independent databases, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, another attorney from Lawyers for Civil Rights, says this database doesn't represent the whole picture of police-related violence.
“There have been tendencies of underreporting of hate crimes, incidents of stop and frisk, and other manifestations of excessive use of force,” Espinoza-Madrigal said in an interview with GBH News. “And so that's why having a more complete picture about other forms of excessive use of force would be really critical here, along with the demographic breakdown to understand if the information is gendered or racialized in concerning ways.”