A new data analysis finds that, between 2015 and 2020, almost half of the encounters New Bedford’s police reported as crime-preventing “field incidents” involved a Black person. 

The nonprofit Citizens for Juvenile Justice said the strategy amounted to excessive surveillance of a Black community that makes up less than a tenth of New Bedford’s population. Researchers from the group presented their findings on Wednesday in a Zoom conference call that drew 200 listeners, including the city’s highest-ranking police officers. Chief Joseph Cordeiro said he needed more time to review the report before responding to questions.

Joshua Dankoff, a co-author of the report, said the data confirms what researchers heard during interviews with young people of color.

“They felt that police were stopping them even on their way to school,” Dankoff said. “The title of the report — ‘We Are the Prey’ — we didn’t come up with that. That was stated by a young person in New Bedford who really felt they were the targets of police harassment and police interactions.”

The 29-page study draws on thousands of “field incident reports” released by the New Bedford Police Department in response to a public records request, which include time and location data. The term field incident can refer to several types of interactions, from a traditional “stop and frisk,” where an officer searches a passer-by for weapons or drugs, to a casual conversation or an officer’s notes about a social media post.

“The NBPD essentially operates as an occupying force in poor neighborhoods of color,” the report concluded. “There are some neighborhoods with majority white residents, where the police simply do not stop many people.”

Citizens for Juvenile Justice also called for the abolition of the police department’s gang database. The report found officers can use the color of a person’s clothing or a suspicious tattoo as grounds for adding someone to their gang database. It estimates nearly one in ten Black men in New Bedford has quietly been labeled a gang member.

Leon Smith, the executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said those determinations can lead to higher cash bails, or an undocumented immigrant’s deportation.

“It is simply not right and not fair that people have no idea that they’re on it — no form of notification — and if you are incorrectly put in this gang database, no way to appeal it,” Smith said.

The report was not shared with New Bedford city officials prior to its release, though researchers noted that the police chief did not respond to several inquiries about the data.

Mayor Jon Mitchell released a statement promising to review the report and take steps to ensure policing in New Bedford is “even-handed.”

“Although the report has not been shared with my office and I am not familiar with the organization that authored it, its findings, as we understand them, warrant our attention,” he said. “New Bedford has long distinguished itself among Northeastern cities as an exemplar of racial equality, and we are committed to confronting any indication of systemic racism in public institutions.”

LaSella Hall, the president of New Bedford’s NAACP branch, called the report’s findings “not shocking.”

“These reports tell a story that many communities of color already know,” Hall said. “For too long, people have said there’s no data. Now you have a robust report that at least says, ‘We have the data to support anecdotal experience.’”

“We must have leaders with the moral courage and the political prowess to make the right decisions to move us forward,” Hall continued.

Citizens for Juvenile Justice plans to expand the analysis to other cities in Massachusetts. Dankoff said he sent similar records requests to more than a dozen police departments in March 2020. New Bedford was the first to provide responsive data.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org.