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Cops missing information on surveillance

Mandatory report on technology, practices leaves Council in dark

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Cops missing information on surveillance

Last year, the Boston City Council passed a sweeping law aimed at reining in surveillance practices by the Boston Police Department and other city agencies.

Under the ordinance, city departments were called on to report to the Council on the use of technologies such as license plate readers, shot-spotters, drones and face-recognition software, as well as how information gleaned from technologies is used and shared with other agencies.

Seven city agencies compiled information and in August turned over more than 1,000 pages of information to councilors. Under the ordinance, councilors have the power to approve or reject the current policies.

Yet during a hearing Monday with the Boston Police Department, police officials were unable to provide key pieces of information required by the ordinance, such as the location of surveillance devices or even how many officers have access to the information culled by such devices.

Muslim Justice League Executive Director Fatema Ahmad testifies on police surveillance

“I just think that there’s some more work here that we have to do in order to fully understand and get a full understanding of the landscape of the surveillance technologies that exist,” said at-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune.

The meeting, which focused on police surveillance only, was the first hearing scheduled to review information submitted by city agencies. In addition to BPD, other departments required to submit surveillance information are Boston Public Schools, Boston Municipal Protective Services, the Office of Emergency Management, the Boston Public Health Commission and Parks and Recreation.

Felipe Colon, superintendent of the Bureau of Investigation for the BPD, acknowledged that the information police gave the Council in August was incomplete.

“Given the time and given the resources, it’s virtually impossible to give you all that information,” he said.

District 6 Councilor Kendra Lara asked the officers when they could actually provide the Council the information required by the law.

“Given the time that you have already used, how much time do you think you need to get us the information that the ordinance actually requires?” she asked.

“I would say in terms of time, I cannot give you that exact number,” Colon said, before thanking the department’s attorneys and other police officials for compiling the department’s 800-page report.

Lara said the Council, too, has been preoccupied, with attention to the city budget, the allocation of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding and redistricting efforts leaving little time for councilors to read the BPD report. The Nov. 21 hearing was the first that Public Safety Committee Chairman Michael Flaherty had scheduled to review the report.

“We have not done our job to look at these surveillance oversight policies as a collective,” Lara said, suggesting that the Council undertake a more lengthy process to review the data submitted by the police and other city agencies.

Police questioned

During the three-hour hearing, councilors and police reform activists questioned police brass and raised concerns about issues including the perceived overreach of the department’s controversial gang database, the use and placement of surveillance cameras, and the department’s ShotSpotter technology.

Louijeune questioned police officials on whether they had vetted their surveillance policies with the public, as called for in the ordinance. Colon said he had attended community meetings in which he “educated” people in the community on the department’s policies.

Louijeune pushed back, say that police should be listening to the public to inform their approach.

“It’s not just a one-way street,” she said. “It’s also about input from the public about what’s working and what’s not working. We’ve heard repeatedly from the public, from federal judges, that as it is programmed, the gang database is a surveillance use policy that is not working, in that it’s over-identifying people as part of the database.”

Long criticized by criminal justice reform activists, the gang database came under broader public scrutiny in 2018, after a student at East Boston High School who was written up by school officials for a verbal confrontation with another student was entered by police into the gang database, then detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents for 16 months before being deported to El Salvador.

The incident put an increased public focus on local law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE agents as well.

Mayor Michelle Wu, while on the campaign trail last year, pledged in several campaign forums and on questionnaires to do away with the gang database if elected.

In January, the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the former East Boston High School student’s petition to review his deportation order, finding that an immigration judge erred in relying on information provided by the gang database, which falsely listed him as being a member of the MS-13 gang.

Cameras, social media

Speaking as part of a panel of community members, Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, questioned the department’s reliance on the use of surveillance technologies, which has increased exponentially since federal funding became available in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

Crockford noted that the sole study of “fusion centers” — federally-funded regional networks through which local police departments share information with each other and with federal authorities — found them singularly ineffective in the fight against terror. The 2012 study, commissioned by a Republican member of Congress, found that not a single one of the nation’s 75 fusion centers had produced information that was useful in a counterterrorism investigation.

The BPD-operated Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) did, however, compile information on individuals who were not criminally-involved, based on their involvement in anti-war protests and other social justice issues.

Muslim Justice League Executive Director Fatema Ahmad noted that BPD has monitored Muslims and monitored people who have used hashtags such as #Blacklivesmatter on social media, at one point adding former City Councilor Tito Jackson to a surveillance list.

“We’re not just kidding when we say everyone here probably is in some of these databases,” she said.

Ahmad said former Mayor Martin Walsh, when he was a state representative, was added to a database after speaking at an Occupy Wall Street rally.

Ahmad urged the Council to carefully review information from the police department.

“I really hope we take seriously deeply scrutinizing all of these technologies and policies and actually create a process where the community actually gets to have input on this,” she said.

Speaking to the Banner after the hearing, Ahmad said a thorough investigation of police surveillance practices and technology would likely take a year.

“The Council should take all of next year to go through all these things,” she said. “They will need multiple hearings.”