Privacy SOS

Boston Police intel policy puts immigrants and dissidents in harm’s way

Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner Bill Evans have spoken out in defense of Boston’s immigrant community, pushing back against the xenophobic and racist rhetoric coming from our nation’s highest political office. Boston, our leaders want the world to know, is a welcoming city. Mayor Walsh even went so far as to hold a press conference at City Hall during which he invited undocumented folks to live in his office if they were afraid of Trump’s deportation force.

All that rhetoric—and some local action to back it up, including the establishment of the City’s Office for Immigrant Advancement—is encouraging. Our City, like many American towns, relies on immigrants to enrich our culture and our economy, and our Mayor seems to get that.

But perhaps unbeknownst even to our local leadership, information collection and sharing policies instituted at the Boston Police Department in the wake of the 9/11 attacks allow federal law enforcement and immigration authorities broad access to information about Bostonians—even when they aren’t suspected of any crimes. In one recent case, those policies directly resulted in a young East Boston man being detained by immigration authorities and ordered deported.

The Intercept’s Ali Winston reports:

In 2015, while in high school in a heavily Latino area of Boston, the young man was in the cafeteria when an argument broke out among several other students. Although no fight ensued, Boston School Police reviewed video footage of the incident and documented him as an “MS-13 Associate” — referring to Mara Salvatrucha, a well-known transnational gang. No suspensions or disciplinary actions were meted out as a result of this incident, according to Sarah Sherman-Stokes, an attorney at Boston University’s Immigrant’s Rights Clinic who represented the young man. However, the police report was forwarded to the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), the local fusion center where Boston cops work side by side with personnel from the FBI and ICE. That fusion center’s privacy policy allows for the sharing of information even without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. 

Sherman-Stokes says documents and court testimony she obtained reveal the information in the school police report prompted agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations arm to scour her client’s Facebook account, which yielded photographs of him wearing blue, white, and red clothing that the feds claimed constituted gang membership. Sherman-Stokes said one of those photographs was taken on the day of a Salvadoran parade in Boston when her client was wearing blue and white, the colors of El Salvador’s flag. Despite her challenges, an immigration judge ruled the young man was a gang associate, and he was ordered removed. The case is currently on appeal, and the man, now 20, has been in immigration detention for more than six months. (The Intercept is withholding his name because some of his relatives are also undocumented.)

“My client was going to school full-time and working at a restaurant from 5 p.m. to midnight — he didn’t have time to be a gang member,” Sherman-Stokes said, noting that the young man has no arrests, or any other indication of gang affiliation other than the lunchroom incident. “What has happened is that every behavior problem of a young brown person has become a gang problem,” said Sherman-Stokes. “I sincerely doubt that a lunchroom dispute would result in this information being sent to BRIC were they not poor kids of color.”

The Boston Regional Intelligence Center’s privacy and civil liberties policy facilitated this disastrous chain of events. The policy bears a strange title, given that it does not provide adequate privacy or civil liberties protections for Bostonians. Instead of limiting the ways in which information can be collected and shared, the policy explicitly allows for local law enforcement and intelligence analysts to collect and share information about people—even if they are not suspected of criminal activity—and to share that information with the feds.

As the case above illustrates, this policy causes real harm to real people. It has also led to some embarrassing press for the Boston Police Department over the past handful of years. First, documents obtained by the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild revealed that BPD intelligence cops had extensively spied on anti-war activists, calling them “extremists” and labeling them as homeland security threats. When we published a report calling for the BPD to change its policy in light of these revelations, the police department ignored our request.

Later, just a few months ago, the BPD took more heat for sending some videographers to monitor the free speech activity of affordable housing activists who attended a Boston Redevelopment Authority meeting to raise their voices against a housing plan. The police defended the decision to film the dissidents, arguing that it was necessary in case things got out of hand. But none of the activists had ever been violent, and there was no reason to believe anything unusual would happen. (The protest was peaceful.) It’s not clear what happened to the video the BPD shot that day, but under the current policy it could be shared with federal agents—including immigration officials.

And indeed, part of the reason activists and civil libertarians are so concerned when the cops film people exercising their First Amendment rights is that the BPD’s policy enables the sharing of these and other records with federal law enforcement and immigration authorities. Immigrant communities are under attack in Massachusetts and nationwide. Now is the time to rethink and rework these policies, to ensure Bostonians feel confident going about their business—either at the school cafeteria or at protests—without worrying that innocuous information about them will end up in the hands of the FBI or ICE.

Unfortunately for the young man profiled in the Intercept story, the BPD’s policy of collecting information about people not suspected of crimes, and then sharing that information with federal authorities, led to his being put on a path to deportation. That’s not right. If you agree, call the Mayor and tell him you want to see that policy changed. If Boston truly wants to protect immigrants, we need to reform the BPD’s intelligence collection and sharing policy to require a criminal predicate. Otherwise, the nice words the Mayor spoke at that famous press conference are just empty promises.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.