By Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts
Boston Police Officer Zachary Crossen just last year celebrated the trust being cultivated between the Boston Police Department and the city’s young people.
“I’m not naïve. I know I’m a white police officer in a predominantly minority neighborhood – and that’s a huge thing to overcome,” Crossen said in an interview on national television. He then described how he met and developed a relationship with a young Black man through a case of “mistaken identity.” He defended he wasn’t stereotyping when he initially engaged the young black man in a hoodie in a park.
Fast forward to this month – and Officer Crossen is the subject of a video that shows a tense exchange between him and a young Black passerby.
The video starts off with another case of “mistaken identity,” when Crossen yells out at the man as he was walking.
“You aren’t Kevin by any chance, are you?” he asked.
The young man – whose first name is Keith – responds that his name is not Kevin. Crossen doesn’t seem convinced and tells Keith Antonio that he looks like “somebody we are looking to speak to.”
The exchange in the video escalates into a scene that communities of color – particularly for Black men like Antonio – know all too well. Crossen attempts to bait Antonio into conflict – and at one point, teeters on the edge of an unreasonable seizure when the officer tells him to “hold on.” The fact is, we have a Constitution that protects against that very procedure – and as someone who had not violated any laws there was absolutely no reason to hold Antonio.
What follows is even more disturbing. Crossen questions Antonio about the ownership of his phone and his employment; a line of inquiry eerily reminiscent of the post reconstruction-era Black codes that gave law enforcement the ability to arrest Black people for not having a job.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing historically or culturally unique about Antonio’s experience with Crossen. This video shows a pattern that has existed in Boston and throughout the nation for generations: police officers engaging young Black men disrespectfully in a way that contributes to the often-strained relationship between police and communities.
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans has commented on flagging police-community relations, and has shamed neighborhoods for not readily coming forward when there are local shootings or homicides – but he hasn’t taken responsibility for the impact his team’s behaviors can have on the mistrust of a community.
There was also another possible mistaken identity. When Antonio asked for Crossen’s badge number he provided the number 1606. This is not Zachary Crossen’s badge number. It belongs to another Boston police officer. It’s possible that Crossen "mistakenly" provided the wrong identity, but his move to obscure the badge when giving the incorrect number suggests otherwise.
However, the real mistaken identity is that of the Boston Police Department. With national coverage like the CBS special, Boston has a reputation for being a leader in community policing. The ACLU issued a report in 2014 that showed the Boston Police Department has a history of disproportionately stopping black people without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. We need to confront this narrative that the Boston Police Department “does it right” when there are so many examples of them getting it wrong. It’s no wonder that African Americans see Boston as an unwelcoming city. If Boston is to be deserving of the open and progressive identity it strives for, there is a lot of work to do.
The video and the conversations it has sparked create a space to talk about what law enforcement can do better. Antonio’s exchange with Officer Crossen is yet another example of why we need greater transparency and accountability for police. In Boston, the city’s police department seems to be backing away from adopting body-worn cameras as an important step towards greater oversight and accountability. Body cameras are not a cure-all. But, if combined with good policies, they can build community trust, improve safety and promote mutual respect on both sides of the badge. Maybe then Boston can be correctly identified as a leader in community policing.