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Arresting words

When police make arrests, they often walk into a verbal storm. Culled from BPD records, these phrases say a lot about the harder edges of city life.

The reedy 27-year-old sat in his underwear on a bed at the Midtown Hotel. He was off his meds, and in turmoil. He had told his pastor he wanted to die.

“There are too many things to mend,” he’d said. “I miss my mama. I want to go to heaven. Death would be a relief.”

The pastor had called 911. Now, two police officers and an EMT were standing in the man’s smoky hotel room making gentle conversation, trying to keep him from hurting himself or someone else, to get him to an emergency room. He wanted no part of that.

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“I’m checking out of here in 40 minutes,” he told them.

Moments like these play out all over the city, every day. Here is the intersection of law and broken humanity, where so much police work happens, and where the things people say — furious, sad, threatening, profane, sometimes unintentionally hilarious — are its gritty transcript.

Officers spend long stretches watching, waiting, sometimes not doing a whole lot of anything, and then calls come over the radio as they did on that frigid Monday — an intruder at a South End brownstone, a shooting by the O’Bryant School, a 7-year-old special needs kid fleeing his Brighton school, an emotionally disturbed person at a Huntington Ave hotel. The lights go on, and they speed into the center of a crisis — and a hailstorm of words.

Until a couple of years ago, police reports gave us wide windows into those moments. Boston Police made publicly available detailed reports that included the voices of the people they encountered, protected, arrested: The threats, excuses, pleas, apologies, rationalizations, provocations, and fears of people in extremis.

It’s likely that police body cameras will soon record those voices in Boston, though the department is proceeding cautiously down that track. The cameras will do more than help settle questions over excessive force: They’ll document countless interactions between police and the people they serve, each of them a microcosm of what animates and afflicts us.

What might we see and hear? Globe data graphics reporter Gabriel Florit collected thousands of police incident reports from 2010 though early 2014 — when data provided by BPD became less detailed. The reports were written by the police officers, and reflect their perspectives, their part of the picture. They record things allegedly said before they arrived on a scene, or after.

Taken one by one, those outbursts, explanations, and pleas reveal moments that go far beyond the rare — and too often deadly — confrontations that have rightly commanded immense public attention.

Together, they show what ails great swaths of the city: Mental illness, domestic violence, poverty, addiction, pig-headedness, hatred — the cracks in Boston’s handsome edifice, through which some of us are lost.

Boston police officers routinely recorded what suspects said at or around the time of arrest from 2010 to 2014. The words presented here were taken from the department's arrest reports.

Warning: The following are verbatim phrases taken from police reports at the time of arrest in Boston. They often contain offensive language, racial slurs, and scenes of sexual assault and violence.


Scroll through the things people say in the midst of crimes and arrests and you see a thick thread of desperation.

It’s a desperation born of addiction. “I’m a loser, I’m addicted to heroin, I’m going to take these jeans,” said one person charged with stealing from a Back Bay store one Friday afternoon.

“I’m glad it’s over,” said a South Bay shoplifter. “I need detox.”

Or it comes from poverty, the people robbing folks on the street and breaking into houses explaining to victims or officers that they’re hungry, or homeless: “I’m sorry I took those things. I lost my job.” “Give me your bag. I’m sorry, Miss, I’m just hungry; I need to eat.”

“I just did it to feed my kids,” said someone who had tried to rob a woman on a Dorchester street. “I wasn’t gonna use the knife; I would never hurt her.”

Like our courtrooms and jails, the police reports are packed with evidence of the awful consequences of untreated mental illness.

“People are out to kill me,” said someone arrested in East Boston one Wednesday morning. “I just want to die. My mind is shutting down on me.”

And, like the city, the reports are full of regrets.

“It’s my fault; I’m sorry but I’m human,” said a person accused of assaulting a police officer in the Fenway.

“I’m so stupid I wasn’t even thinking about the cameras,” said an addict who admitted to stealing a roll of quarters in Egleston Square.

There is creativity, too, as people try to talk their way out of trouble: “I’m just using the bat as a walking stick,” said someone accused of assault with a deadly weapon in the Back Bay one Thursday night; “Oh [expletive]! I was just delivering a package,” said another, accused of breaking into a South End home on a Monday afternoon.

“Take it easy on the report; this is embarrassing,” pleaded one person caught stealing in the South End.

Boston police officers routinely recorded what suspects said at or around the time of arrest from 2010 to 2014. The words presented here were taken from the department's arrest reports.

Warning: The following are verbatim phrases taken from police reports at the time of arrest in Boston. They often contain offensive language, racial slurs, and scenes of sexual assault and violence.


The reports are most chilling when they record what is said in the homes where abusers hurt people they are supposed to love. There, those accused of domestic violence are incensed that their partners are pregnant, that they’ve been seeing someone else, that they failed to obey their man, that they tried to leave.

“Pick a bullet for you and me and mommy,” an alleged abuser with a gun told a child on a Friday night.

“I love you so much I will kill you and myself,” said another.

The cruel arrogance in some of the reports is stomach-turning, underlining the limits of the system’s capacity to protect people from partners determined to abuse them.

“Why do you call the police,” one abuser taunted. “Looks like you’ll be sitting in court again saying I didn’t do nothing.”

There is a sickness in these words that captures this scourge in a way statistics just can’t.


Into these and other potentially deadly situations police officers go, often blind. If they’re trained well and are level-headed, they adapt quickly. Sometimes the people they deal with test them — daring them, baiting them, threatening them— and that makes staying calm difficult. We pay police to rise above, to defuse the risk. They seem better at it here than in some other places.

Here are hundreds of situations that seem like they could be the start of one of the disastrous police shootings that have prompted national soul-searching. They’re a glimpse into how treacherous interactions with the police can be, on both sides.

“I’m not coming out,” said a person in West Roxbury who was eventually charged with assault for threatening police with his car. “Someone is going to get hurt. You know suicide by cop? You’re gonna have to shoot me. Move those cruisers or I will hit them.”

“Get me out of these handcuffs; I will kill you all. Let’s go to a place with no cameras and see what happens,” said a person arrested in Dudley Square.

The people they arrest sometimes pull rank and threaten to have police officers fired. They invoke their law enforcement connections, or their diplomatic immunity.

The tension in these moments leaps from the reports, as does some people’s mistrust of police.

“I don’t have to tell you anything; this is the third time I’ve been stopped in two days,” said a person accused of disturbing the peace in Maverick Square.

“This is racial profiling,” said someone accused of assault and battery in Mattapan one Thursday evening. “You’re just trying to fill your quota. You have no right to search me. This is harassment!”

Boston police officers routinely recorded what suspects said at or around the time of arrest from 2010 to 2014. The words presented here were taken from the department's arrest reports.

Warning: The following are verbatim phrases taken from police reports at the time of arrest in Boston. They often contain offensive language, racial slurs, and scenes of sexual assault and violence.


Every situation has lethal potential.

And so police and the EMT were careful with the man in the hotel room that Monday morning. They drew him into a conversation about Kentucky, where he’d lived, and about his favorite kind of cigarette. They made him feel like they were all in it together: If he’d just agree to go to the hospital, he’d be doing everybody a big favor, and they could all get on with things.

“I’ll tell you what,” the EMT said. “If you come with us, you can have another cigarette before we get in the ambulance.”

The man agreed. He got dressed, pushed some clothes into a bag, and walked with the police officers downstairs to the street. They all stood around chatting while he had one last smoke.

“OK, we gotta go,” the EMT said gently, putting a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

He took one last puff and climbed into the ambulance.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham. Gabriel Florit can be reached at gabriel.florit@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gabrielflorit.