City Council President Ed Flynn (South Boston, South End, Chinatown, Downtown), who last year joined all his other colleagues in passing an ordinance requiring Boston Police and seven other departments to detail their use of cameras, cell-phone interceptors and other surveillance technologies, today voiced concern that forcing BPD to actually comply could result in the release of information that would help bad guys.
In a hearing this morning on an initial 800-page BPD report on its use of electronic technologies, Flynn said he is now worried how the council could keep certain information secure and private as the department prepares the required yearly updates on their use.
Flynn, who served in the Navy and said he was likely the only councilor to have actually accessed "top secret" information, said the council would have "an obligation to make sure [sensitive information] stays here" and does not get disseminated publicly.
He gave as an example the location of certain monitoring devices. "I just want make sure information is protected and it doesn't get into the public domain."
His concern was echoed by BPD brass - who also helped draft the ordinance the council passed - who said they were worried that the department's need to be as transparent with the public as possible could also possibly affect ongoing criminal investigations. However, they were not able to provide specific examples of how that has happened or might happen in the future.
Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU's Technology for Liberty Program, questioned the point.
BPD "is not like the CIA or the US military, it should not be handling classified information," she said.
While BPD can legally keep quiet on information directly related to criminal investigations, that's not the same as listing the locations of the city's roughly 1,000 surveillance cameras - which anybody with eyes can easily spot - she said. She pointed to her Brunswick-King neighborhood in Roxbury, where "surveillance cameras are all over the neighborhood," which she said knows because she can see them as she walks around.
What would be useful, she said, would be to get an idea of where they are across the city, to see if minority neighborhoods are disproportionately stocked with them.
She said she did hear one counterargument, that criminals who knew the location of cameras could plot an escape route out of the city to avoid all cameras, which she dismissed because, seriously, Boston does not have that sort of sophisticated criminal element.
Fatema Ahmad, executive direct of the Muslim Justice League, asked why Flynn and BPD were raising this issue now, not last year, when the council was drafting the ordinance.
Police officials at the hearing, including Commissioner Michael Cox, said transparency and community policing are paramount, but that they are unfairly criticized by uneducated members of the public who perhaps watch too many TV crime shows or spend too much time on social media. Cox said that when he arrived at the scene of a recent murder, some guy kept loudly demanding police solve the crime quickly because of all the cameras around. In fact, he said, there were no surveillance cameras at that location.
Surveillance tools help police focus in on criminal behavior and often come into use only after a judge has issued a search warrant or during an emergency, he said.
Supt. Felipe Colon said officers only want to do what's right and that strong rules - and in many cases, judicial oversight - ensure data is not abused. Officers, he added, will not tolerate abuse by other officers.
Crockford, though, noted that the public has a right to be concerned about police abuse of data, that innocent people might get swept up in a growing city surveillance system or that bad actors in the department might use access to sensitive data for illegal activities. She pointed to the long BPD career of Patrick Rose, a child rapist who eventually become head of the local police union, as somebody who didn't let department norms, let alone the law, stop him.
Councilors Ruthzee Louijeune (at large) and Julia Mejia (at large) said that along with educating the public, the police need to listen to the public and take their concerns to heart, for example, concerns about the criminalization of the city's Black and Brown residents through such resources as the BPD gang database, which they said had swept up people who have nothing to do with gangs.
Lt. Det. Paul McLaughlin, who spent seven years working with the database, said the department no longer puts people into it simply for associating with known gang members.
"I would argue the gang database is invaluable," by letting investigators see which groups and individuals are responsible for often violent and retaliatory crimes," Colon said.
Colon said Louijeune should do like Councilor Erin Murphy (at large) and spend some time at the Boston Regional Information Center - a regional data-collection agency led by BPD - to learn what the police are up against. Louijeune replied she had already done so.
Louijeune said that even at 800 pages, the BPD report was not complete - while it mentioned that BHA security officers will soon get body-worn cameras, it did not say anything about surveillance cameras BHA has installed at its developments.
Colon said two department lawyers spent "hundreds of hours" collecting and organizing the data required by the ordinance - in addition to the time each bureau in the department had to spend on the submission - but acknowledged the report might not be complete.
Watch the entire hearing (includes additional issues, such as ShotSpotter):