Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

A Lesson in How to Read a Police Report

In this article posted on the BPD twitter feed, the police allege that on July 1, 2016, the following took place:

  • At about 6:31 PM on Friday, July 1, 2016, members of the Youth Violence Strike Force were on patrol when they observed three males milling about in the area of McGreevey and Turquoise Ways. Upon seeing the approaching officers, the individuals turned away and attempted to vacate the area. In light of the apprehensive behavior, officers approached two of the individuals to better understand their actions. While talking to the individuals, officers noted that one of the individuals appeared to be extremely nervous given the fact that he was physically shaking and sweating profusely. When asked to provide his name, the individual failed to respond and refused to make eye contact with the officers. At this time, officers observed an L-shaped bulge, consistent with that of a firearm, in the area of the suspect’s right pocket. When officers attempted to frisk the suspect, the suspect pushed the officers and attempted to flee the scene. After a lengthy physical struggle, officers were able to subdue the suspect and gain possession of the firearm (see photo). While taking the suspect into custody, a large crowd began to yell, heckle and verbally disparage the officers. Back at the booking desk, the suspect asked: “Why did you rip my pants … you already got my gun.” Officers arrested [Defendant], 18, of Boston and charged him with the Unlawful Possession of a Firearm, Unlawful Possession of Ammunition and Carrying a Loaded Firearm on a Public Way.

When you read police narratives, the first thing you have to do is read between the lines to get the real story.  So when the article says that the officers "approached two of the individuals to better understand their actions," after the people they were after "attempted to [leave]," what do you think they mean?   Do you think that when these guys saw the cops coming for them and "attempt[ed] to [leave]," they slowly changed direction and wandered off into the sunset, or do you think they took off running?  Similarly, do you think that when the police say that they "approached" these guys, what they mean is that they sauntered up to them and started taking about the weather? Or do you think the police saw them take off, figured the chase was on, ran them down and tackled them?  Along those lines, does the fact that these guys "attempted" to leave -- apparently unsuccessfully -- mean anything to you?  There was a chase and a struggle at one point -- even the police agree with that.  What do you think the chances are that the police and the individuals arrested in this case would disagree about the sequence of events?

The second thing you have to do when reading a police report is try to strip out the irrelevant extravegances and boil it down to what actually happened. In this case that means leaving out the business about how the guy the police approached was "sweating profusely" (like a cartoon character caught in a lie) and how he supposedly "refused to make eye contact." Neither one of these things means anything -- they are just the kind of subjective and irrelevant details officers include to try to make the fact that they had a hunch something was up sound like less of a guess.  Without that kind of language, what you are left with is a guy who appears nervous after he has been "approached" on the street for no apparent reason, told to provide his name and submit to a pat frisk. 

Last, once you strip away the allegations that sound like they support what the officer did, but in fact add nothing, you have to see whether what you are left with means anything in the law.  Look back at what we are left with here and remember that a person is not required to identify himself, or submit to a pat-frisk, unless the police have reasonable suspision to stop him.  Add to that the fact that that the Supreme Judicial Court has held that "when officer has no basis for initiating stop, [a person]'s flight in response to show of authority cannot justify stop," and the only conclusion you can possibly reach is that the officers had no reason to stop this person, no reason to ask his name or ask to search him, and everything that came afterwards ought to be suppressed by a judge.

Oh, and by the way, this gun does not make "an L-shaped bulge . . . [in someone's] right pocket." Firearm Seized by BPD in Unlawful Search