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Why the ACLU is suing the Boston Police over its gang database

Rahsaan Hall and Kade Crockford

Ever since the “War on Crime” was launched in 1965, government officials have promoted the idea that the best way to keep low-income communities safe is to increase police presence and surveillance. But there is little evidence that these approaches result in increased safety.

Of one thing we can be certain though: Aggressive surveillance and policing have increased tensions between black, Latinx and poor communities and the law enforcement agencies that are charged with serving and protecting the very people they profile, monitor and question. There’s ample evidence that public safety approaches involving community members and addressing the underlying issues of poverty, trauma, substance use disorder and mental health have better outcomes. Despite this, when confronted with spikes in violence, politicians and police continue to call for more surveillance and pivot to ineffective tough-on-crime practices and rhetoric.

That’s part of the reason our organization — the ACLU of Massachusetts — and six other groups filed a public records lawsuit seeking information about the Boston Police Department’s gang database. Among other things, we are seeking records that could help the public understand whether the gang database actually works to reduce violence in our communities.

Government works best when the governed know how they are being governed. In this case, it’s not enough for us to take the city at its word when it says the gang database is a necessary public safety tool. We want to see the evidence.

Law enforcement’s resistance to demands for transparency is particularly troubling when requests for information concern the ways police monitor and engage black and Latinx youth. The history of racial profiling, police misconduct, and police-involved shootings in black and Latinx communities is well-documented and replete with injustice.

Communities are admonished for not trusting the police and are accused of engaging in divisive commentary; we are told we are part of the problem and not the solution. What is lacking in these dismissals is proof to the contrary. Nothing has been offered to assuage the concerns that law enforcement intelligence gathering tactics have not been an over-inclusive dragnet operation yielding very little fruit in exchange for the destructive harvest it has reaped.

When police place people in the gang database, it has consequences that impact a person’s ability to fully participate in society and live a life free from suspicion. We should never restrict someone’s freedom or subject them to surveillance absent even an allegation that they have engaged in violence or criminal activity. But that is what this database does: Being a victim of a crime, being with a family member who is in a gang, being stopped by a police officer are all factors that police use to place people in the gang database. We don’t know how many people are in the database, how many are black or Latinx, how long people stay in the database, or whether people can be removed from it. That’s what we’re seeking to find out. But we do know that when someone is falsely accused in the system of gang membership, the “junk in, junk out” nature of the database can produce disastrous consequences for individual liberty, including increased police harassment for citizens and deportation for immigrants.

In 2010, the ACLU responded to community concerns that BPD’s stop-and-frisk practices were disproportionately impacting black and Latinx communities. In 2014, after lengthy negotiations and an academic study we learned and reported — in our “Black, Brown and Targeted” report — that the BPD engaged in racially disparate stop-and-frisk of the city’s residents. While black people only make up 24 percent of Boston residents, they were over 62 percent of people stopped or surveilled by the police. Telling the public the truth about this problem did not make the city less safe, and neither will information about the gang database hurt us. In fact, if used as a corrective, this information may lead to reforms that improve the relationship between police and the communities they are charged to serve and protect.

For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has been at the forefront of defending civil rights and civil liberties. We advocate in the courts, the Legislature and in community to ensure liberty and justice for all. We do so even for those among us whose actions and behaviors we do not agree with, because if their rights are not protected, no one’s rights are protected.

Rahsaan Hall – director, Racial Justice Program
Kade Crockford – director, Technology for Liberty