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Boston City Council votes along racial lines to approve four federal grants for police intelligence unit that oversees controversial gang database

Michael Flaherty

Animated Michael Flaherty moves for grants.

The Boston City Council today approved acceptance of a total of $3.4 million in federal grants for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, (BRIC) a BPD unit that collects data and video used to fight crime and terrorism - and which maintains a database of Boston residents accused of being members of local gangs.

All seven white members of the council - Baker, Breadon, Coletta, Durkan, Flynn, Flaherty and Murphy - voted to accept the grants, which date to 2020, but which the council had never before accepted. Five Black and Hispanic councilors - Arroyo, Lara, Louijeune, Mejia, Worrell - voted against. Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson was not present.

Several proponents, including outgoing at-large Councilor Michael Flaherty, acknowledged the BRIC has made mistakes. The unit is under investigation by the state Attorney General's office and which federal judges have criticized in rulings, one issued just last year in the case of a Salvadoran man who says he was incorrectly listed as a member of the violent MS-13 gang.

But they said that under a new commissioner and mayor, the unit has purged its gang database of the names of people who shouldn't have been listed and taken other steps to bring the unit out into the community and ensure residents and councilors are regularly informed of what it's doing.

"This is a different BRIC," Flaherty said. "This is a different police commissioner. This is a different mayor." The request to accept the Homeland Security grants, in fact, came from Mayor Wu's office.

"We want intelligent police," outgoing Dorchester district Councilor Frank Baker said. "We don't want the opposite of an intelligent police force."

Outgoing Councilor Kendra Lara (West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain), though, vowed she will never vote for Wu again. If anything, the city should, like other cities have done, eliminate the database altogether.

She said she was surprised last year, when white supremacists were coming into Boston, BPD said it had no intelligence on them. And that, she said, is because BRIC is still too focused on the Black community. In a prior job as a street worker, she said, she learned first hand what happens to young Black men who show up in the gang database - from which there was once no escape: They get fewer breaks in the justice system and they even have their lives as BPS students disrupted.

She questioned whether BPD will allow true oversight of the unit - and said she doubted the council was in a position to demand it. She said that, technically, the council is now supposed to review BPD surveillance technology, yet last year simply voted to accept a BPD report on what it was doing without so much as a hearing.

"It is 2023 and this body is moving back on police reform," she said, adding that white councilors who consider themselves "allies" should really think long and had about what that means.

Councilor Gabriela Coletta (North End, East Boston, Charlestown) acknowledged the harm the unit has done in the past with its often inaccurate point system for deciding which activities get which people into the gang database. She pointed to an East Boston resident who got deported after the BRIC and BPS fed information about him to ICE, in fact, she called that "abhorrent."

And she said she wasn't really comfortable voting for the grants without another hearing.

But she said that under Commissioner Michael Cox, many of the worst things about BRIC have ended and she plans to carefully review the periodic reports BPD promised the council. And in the meantime, she said, BRIC - which includes oversight of security cameras across Boston - "has stopped hate crimes, murders, sexual assaults and kidnappings and attacks on our LGBTQ neighbors and our Jewish neighbors."

At-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said she's all in favor of good police work and safe streets and noted that the council routinely and unanimously approves other grants to Boston Police. In fact, before voting on the BRIC grants, the council voted unanimously to accept another federal grant, for $1 million, to beef up BPD's ability to detect radiation incidents.

But there are just too many unanswered questions involving "transparency and accountability" to vote to give the unit even more money, when people who might not be suspected of criminal activity might be put in the database, she said, adding that in the past councilors have been unable to get information about BRIC and that even this week, when she asked specific questions about BPD bids for technology for the unit, she only got back partial answers. "I cannot, in good conscience, say that I am comfortable with the alleged improvements of the BRIC based on incomplete information based on simply one hearing."

"We need to make sure we have checks and balances," she said.

Louijeune makes a point:

Louijeune makes a point

At-large Councilor Erin Murphy said accepting the grants would be "quite literally what we were were sent here to do," to keep Boston residents safe. More than $3 million in grants to make "streets and neighborhoods safer has been left on the table for too many years now" - especially in "our most underserved neighborhoods" - she said.

City Councilor Brian Worrell (Dorchester) praised BPD as "the best police department in the nation," but like his Black and Latina colleagues, said he could not vote for increased funding for a unit that includes the BRIC.

In addition to the problems for residents, as noted by federal judges, the unit itself is largely white, in a city that is now majority non-white. He also called for additional hearings to consider things such as more diversity in BRIC hiring, in ensuring the unit doesn't go back to its old ways to targeting mainly minority men. In fact, he called for creating a new database focused on hate crimes.

And he said that all the technological marvels of a centralized surveillance and data-collection system did absolutely nothing to help his family and neighbors deal with a rapid rise of violence - including three murders - in their neighborhood near Old Road in Dorchester. What finally worked, he said, was BPD's recent decision to have cops drive a cruiser to one end of the road and simply sit there and deter the violent partiers that had claimed the short road. "The results so far have been great" - and are due to BPD finally listening to complaints from neighbors.

When at-large Councilor Julia Mejia said the racial split on the council means "I don't feel safe coming into this chamber" and called for "a pause" to allow for additional hearings on the BRIC and its database, Flaherty grew agitated and essentially told her to stop being a hater.

Rather than just opposing the BRIC, he said the no-voters should work with it and BPD leadership to win future grants that would make the BRIC better.

"BRIC is open, and they'll meet with anyone," he said. "Don't be a detractor, be a partner."

"At the end of the day, BRIC helps solve crimes, particularly violent crime, particularly homicide," he said. "BRIC brings justice and some some solace and a little bit of peace and a little bit of closure to people that have had a loved one killed in the streets of Boston."

Watch the discussion and votes:

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Comments

Is our Asian Mayor and Black policy commissioners position on the funding.

I guess it’s not relevant when trying to stir up shit.

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You might try it.

Was going to tell you to go to a specific paragraph in the story, but that would involve counting, so here goes:

"This is a different BRIC," Flaherty said. "This is a different police commissioner. This is a different mayor." The request to accept the Homeland Security grants, in fact, came from Mayor Wu's office.

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Which, of course, you know, being a veteran of print journalism.

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That the mayor introduced the request for the money, which she did weeks ago, or that the council voted on it today - and did so along racial lines?

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with basic tenets of journalism? you’ve been mad about Adam reporting the news twice in the last three days.

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Says the "conveniently" anonymous troll. I guess anonymity is better when trying to stir up shit.

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"We want intelligent police," outgoing Dorchester district Councilor Frank Baker said. "We don't want the opposite of an intelligent police force."

Somehow, I don't think he was really paying attention on this one.

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Frank has helped more people in his life than you will if you live to be 200.

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Grateful for Mayor Wu’s leadership on this.

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What's the matter with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center?

Just some of their greatest hits:

Records obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice found the BRIC obsessively documented First Amendment protected activities at Occupy Boston.
Years later, BRIC was caught using social media software to track Black Lives Matter activists, Muslims using ordinary words connected to their faith, and students organizing a school walkout to protest budget cuts.

According to records obtained by Lawyers for Civil Rights, the BRIC shared sensitive information about Boston Public Schools students with ICE over 140 times, leading to at least one deportation, and initiated BRIC profiles of several students that eventually lead to their arrests and long-term incarceration by ICE, even for students who were never alleged to have committed any criminal act.

The BRIC hosts the BPD’s “gang database.” 97 percent of the people in the database with race documented are Black and Latinx.

BRIC employees can add people to the database even if they have never been suspected of participating in gang related violence. Living in the “wrong” neighborhood and knowing the “wrong” people is enough to get Black and brown people labeled as gang members, a designation that can stick with a person for decades. Once a person is so designated, the police are more likely to routinely harass them as they go about their daily life in their community.

I'm not surprised to see the usual suspects promoting this travesty but I'm really disappointed in the mayor.

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If you are going to bring this up:

The BRIC hosts the BPD’s “gang database.” 97 percent of the people in the database with race documented are Black and Latinx.

Then why not add in a breakdown of the demographics of homicide victims or better yet, shooting victims? This wild expectation that the gang database will match the demographics of the city is not based in reality, especially when there are so many other disparities. This means that the people who raise this point are too stupid to understand this, or they are making arguments in bad faith and are assuming their audience is dumb to question it.

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the world will never know.

This wild expectation that the gang database will match the demographics of the city is not based in reality, especially when there are so many other disparities. This means that the people who raise this point are too stupid to understand this, or they are making arguments in bad faith and are assuming their audience is dumb to question it.

i don’t think people that raise this argument are too stupid; i think they correctly note the difference between 97% and 45% and they raise their eyebrows a bit. can you understand that?

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So sorry I disparaged the precious gang database. Watching credulous politicians expanding the surveillance state for federal security theater windfalls really gets me riled up.

I'm not going to assume you're cherry-picking that one BRIC accomplishment. What are your thoughts on BRIC's other targets? Who should we aim the $3.4 million in federal grants at? Do you have any preferences for who else would be good subjects for surveillance and enemies listing?

Everyone should watch the video Adam posted even though it is long. The council members are clearly showing you who they are, so you should believe them and vote accordingly.

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Actions speak louder than words.

I'd like to hear her reasoning on what, if anything, she thinks is going to change in an opaque organization that remains free of accountability.

Is the city also going to get federal grants to fight FOIA requests and civil rights lawsuits? Are the feds going to pay Boston's court settlements?

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I've added video of the session to the bottom of the original post.

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Councilor Mejia says she does not feel safe coming to the city council chamber. Is the public severely misinformed about what is happening on the council?
Because it is not at all clear what safety risk she is facing by coming to work. Alternatively, her perception of what is truly unsafe is so far outside that of a reasonable person, she should not be making public safety decisions like this one for the city.

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Massachusetts taxpayers got their money back for something.

Would be nice if that cash was getting spent on money to build microhousing, but hey, why try when sucking is easier?

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there are bad guys out there. Usually they are known to the police at a young age. Good to keep track of them. Turning down a grant? Nope.

Boston Police may be the best major city police force in the USA. They mostly have the balance right. I know Cox, solid man.

"I don't feel safe coming into this chamber" Then stay out. Classic campus crybully cancel culture BS. You're not in an undergraduate sociology class, Julia.

and bye, Kendra.

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Let’s see… a secret list, maintained by an unaccountable administrative group, outside the oversight of the court system. It’s been well documented that having your name on the list leads to misery. Vague, fuzzy criteria for getting your name added to the list. No obvious to get your name off the list if it’s on there mistakenly, or even to know if your name is on the list or not.

What could possibly go wrong?

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I wonder why we haven't heard anyone scream "Security theater!" yet.

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There is a shooting in Boston. A Witness gives a description of a vehicle that was seen speeding away and cops (maybe another town) stop the vehicle. There are 4 people in the car. They are all identified. One of them had served time for a shooting 2 years before. 2 others have criminal records (25 arrests each for violent crimes), one had no record and is 15. There are no guns in the car, and the driver is cooperative but does not say why he was at the scene of the shooting but did hear gunshots. The driver says he does not know the three people in his car but are friends of a friend (only knows the friend's name as "JR" and doesn't know "JR's" phone number) and he is driving them to a train stop. The driver admits to being in a gang when he shot at someone 2 years earlier, but denies being in a gang now. The three passengers refuse to talk. The cops identify all four in the car and let them go. Detectives follow up and from a firearm recovered near the scene get prints that come back to one of the passengers in the car that was stopped.

What should the police do with this information? These are common types of things that occur and probably need to be documented somewhere. Sure the El Salvadorian kid who was a victim of an MS-13 gang who got deported because of it appears to be a problem, but these other instances? Where is the line drawn?

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I fail to see how anything in this hypothetical keeps anyone safer or stops crime. The shooting has already happened in your scenario, the evidence wasn't found yet, it will be very simple to locate the suspect after a positive ID, this grant isn't necessary to continue that kind of police work.

All the time and resources exhausted to keep up this database should be used to research why there was a shooting in the first place IMO. Boston is small, smaller for POC, being associated with a criminal isn't difficult and I don't want to help fund my own harassment cause of where I was born or who I know, it's very un-American.

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Do all of these people go in this database? And if you think Boston is “small” I’m telling you it’s not. A good percentage of these guys aren’t from Boston or move out or move back etc, etc.

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All the people in the car go into the database @Pete Nice, even the one who had no record and is 15. BRIC identifies him as an associate gang member now.

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That is not how it works. The BRIC doesn't "identify" anything. You can simply get that information and deduce that the 15 year old is a gang member, an innocent child, or whatever you want. The fact remains that he was in a car with someone who committed a crime. You can't erase the fact that he was there and most likely has a chance of being involved in criminal activity in the future whether he is a victim or not. Do you deport him for it? That's not the BRICs job and that seems to be the issue here?

Get rid of the BRIC today and that event still happens and a report will be logged into the Boston Police report writing system that the Randolph police has access to. Nothing would change except it would be harder to disseminate crucial information which is the main job of a fusion center, (along with tracking and organizing data). There is an "intelligence" function with that, but again, those intelligence functions only provide data that other humans can act on. The criminal event is going to happen either way.

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The issue is not the collection of data, it’s the misuse of that data, for example by people who have access to the data using it uncritically, perhaps to bias unfavorably their interactions with people who find themselves on the list, or, worse, to mete out extrajudicial punishment in the form of harassment or excessive, intrusive scrutiny. There have been numerous cases of jurisdictions, mostly smaller towns, having a deliberate policy of using this kind of data to identify people who are deemed undesirable, even if not ever charged or convicted, and harass them into moving away.

Again, collecting data is in principle good, and it’s a valuable tool. It is unfortunate that our institutions have demonstrated that they can’t be trusted to use the tool responsibly in all cases, so the question becomes whether to take it away.

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You can't erase the fact that he was there and most likely has a chance of being involved in criminal activity in the future whether he is a victim or not.

Do you actually have data to show that being in a car with someone who commits a crime at age 15 makes someone more than 50% likely to commit a crime themselves? And not just any crime, but a crime serious enough to justify putting their name on a list of "potential criminals" for the rest of their life with no recourse?

Get rid of the BRIC today and that event still happens and a report will be logged into the Boston Police report writing system that the Randolph police has access to.

One of these things carries with it the stigma of being branded a "potential criminal" and the other is just notes in a file. It's all about how the data is being used.

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