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Council denies BRIC surveillance grant

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell stopped a six-figure grant for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center after another councilor brought it to a surprise vote on Wednesday.

Campbell, as the head of the Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice, has held multiple hearings questioning BRIC’s controversial gang database and how it shares intelligence information with outside agencies.

“There is tremendous work that needs to be done for the BRIC to get to a place where folks in the community, especially communities of color, trust this institution — and we were not there,” Campbell said of the vote.

BRIC is a fusion center, a type of information sharing and analysis center that exists in every U.S. state and territory. The Department of Homeland Security and its fusion centers were created in the post-9/11 push for protection from terrorism. Through BRIC, Boston police officers share information, including incident reports and arrests, with federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Information added by Boston police officers to BRIC database has been used by ICE officials to deport individuals, including people who have not been convicted of crimes, critics say.

In last week’s meeting, Councilor Frank Baker was attempting to bring the grant out of Campbell’s committee, within the rules, because it was the last possible day that BRIC could receive the $850,000 grant.

But BRIC leadership has refused to adjust the gang database and refused Campbell’s suggestions, while declining to suggest their own improvements.

Journalists and city councilors have investigated BRIC’s possible regular communication with ICE and its increased surveillance of Black and Latino men through the gang database, along with claims that it targets Muslim populations in Boston through its intelligence-gathering.

As of this year, there are 101 active gangs in the database and 3,383 individuals currently listed. Fewer than 10% of the entries are white people.

Muslim Justice League Executive Director Fatema Ahmad is one of the loudest voices calling for the abolition of BRIC.

“There are these centers, with very little guidance or transparency, that are not only surveilling people, but sharing information with other law enforcement agencies, and also other public and private agencies as well,” Ahmad told the Banner. “The post 9/11 Islamophobic scare has led to a lot of civil rights issues, human rights issues where Islamophobia uses the language of national security to justify creating these kinds of institutions.”

The grant for BRIC was intended to support six more analysts at the agency, but Campbell said she didn’t see how adding more employees would improve existing problems.

“I have hearings, and sometimes they show up, sometimes they don’t. I propose ideas or ways to improve, I push them to meet with advocates, and that has not happened,” Campbell said.

During the discussion before the vote on this grant, Baker implied that BRIC needs more support to address violence in Boston. Campbell made it clear to the council that giving BRIC more money wouldn’t immediately help victims of violence.

“This suggestion … that maybe I or other councilors don’t care about safety in our neighborhood is absolutely ridiculous,” Campbell said at the meeting.

“This is not even going to send people on the streets, this doesn’t fund officers to actually show up in our neighborhoods on the ground and to respond to incidents of violence,” she said.

Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Lydia Edwards spoke in support of Campbell, adding that they haven’t seen enough transparency from BRIC either.

If the agency is going to use violence in Boston as a justification for funding, Arroyo said, they need to communicate how they’re helping.

“BRIC doesn’t solve murders,” he said.

Edwards said BRIC has been given every chance to respond to questions about communicating with ICE, and about the gang database’s issues.

“We do that for every other department. [Campbell] set a standard as the committee chair, for these funds, to answer some questions. They did not,” Edwards said.

Ahmad said that from the perspective of the Muslim Justice League, the council’s denial of this grant is a big win. Moving forward, Ahmad wants the city to undo BRIC altogether.

While Campbell hasn’t said anything about pushing to abolish BRIC, stopping its expansion is her first step to getting them to cooperate.

“We’re pushing for the department as a whole to shift the culture,” she said. BRIC is part of the Boston Police Department, and Campbell wants BPD as a whole to acknowledge the racial disparities in BRIC’s analysis and create more transparency in the center’s practices.