Privacy SOS

Why was the Boston Police Department filming affordable housing protesters last night?

Last night, Boston Police Department officials were photographed filming people protesting a controversial Boston Planning & Development Agency meeting. Despite the advocates’ campaign—which included a sleepover protest inside City Hall this week—the Agency quickly voted to approve a new development along Washington Street in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. Advocates were demanding a larger percentage of affordable housing be included in the plan, which is set to be built in a rapidly gentrifying area of Boston. “If you’re going to build in our neighborhoods, you need to build for us,” Modesto Sanchez told the Boston Globe.

The BPD’s filming of protesters inside City Hall set off a firestorm of criticism on Twitter, including from City Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents Roxbury and Jamaica Plain and is running for Mayor of Boston against Marty Walsh.

Today the ACLU filed a public records request with the BPD seeking information about its decision to film the protest, as well as the video itself. 

While it’s difficult to imagine a public safety justification for the BPD’s filming of these peaceful protesters, it’s not entirely surprising given the department’s history and its current policies. In 2012, the ACLU and NLG obtained BPD documents showing intelligence officers from the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) had spied on antiwar groups, calling them domestic extremists. But this wasn’t a one-off problem.

The police never apologized for conducting surveillance of peaceful, First Amendment protected activity (instead officials said they’d retained the files for too long and blamed a computer glitch). Since then, the BPD’s privacy and civil liberties policy hasn’t changed. That’s terrible, because the policy allows officials to surveil people even when they aren’t suspected of violating the law. In other words, cops can spy on people even if the cops don’t suspect those people are doing anything illegal. Even worse, the policy contains very vague language about when information may be shared with outside agencies like the FBI, meaning these videos could end up in the hands of federal law enforcement.

Until that policy changes, we should expect to see more political surveillance from the BPD. If you think that’s a problem, call the Mayor’s office and let him know:  617-635-4500.

© 2017 ACLU of Massachusetts.