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:
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: