Privacy SOS

Boston residents demand community control over police surveillance at packed City Council hearing

In a hearing last week at the Boston City Council, police leaders signaled that they would support a measure to require community control over police surveillance, and community advocates highlighted extreme racial disparities in policing in Boston as a primary driver of the demand to implement democratic oversight and accountability measures. A representative of the police department also disclosed that while the Boston Police don’t currently use face tracking technology, they plan to look at it in the future.

In recent years, cities and towns from Seattle, Washington to Providence, Rhode Island have passed ordinances to bring community control over police surveillance practices, to ensure police departments don’t adopt practices like face surveillance technology without democratic approval and oversight.

Over the past five years, the Boston Police Department has used drones, social media surveillance software, information sharing and data-mining systems, surveillance cameras, license plate readers, and stingray cell phone tracking devices, among other high-tech surveillance tools. There are currently no state statutes in Massachusetts governing these invasive technologies. The BPD, like many police departments nationwide, bought and used these tools in what amounts to secrecy—with no public debate, no democratic oversight, and no external accountability. Last week, a coalition of Boston residents and organizations testified before the Boston City Council demanding change, and community control of police surveillance.

The June 19 hearing, sponsored by City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu, City Council President Andrea Campbell, and Chair of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, Tim McCarthy, attracted dozens of Bostonians concerned about police surveillance. The room was packed. Nearly 100 people submitted written testimony to the Committee, raising concerns about the way the Boston Police Department treats young people of color and calling for more community control of local law enforcement. Councilors called the hearing after requests from organizers working with the BosCops crew, a group of organized residents fighting for justice and community control over the police.

The hearing featured two panels, one police and one community. Testifying for the police were BPD Superintendent-In-Chief William Gross, Superintendent and Chief Technology Officer John Daley, and Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) Director David Carabin. The community advocates panel featured My’Kel McMillen, a community leader and Bromley Heath resident, Jamie Kennedy, an organizer with Bikes Not Bombs, Ben Green, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, and Kade Crockford, the Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty Program. After the two panels, residents spoke about their concerns during the public comment period.

The police began by proclaiming a commitment to transparency and community input. Chief Gross emphasized that the department wants to adopt technology in a way that respects the community’s concerns. Superintendent Daley echoed Gross’ sentiments and said that when deciding whether to adopt new technology, the department conducts a cost-benefit analysis, evaluates functionality, and considers whether the technology would be consistent with the department’s values. Daley also noted that the department weighs its community policing values as more important than efficiency.

But the BPD’s professed commitment to transparency didn’t exactly shine as the law enforcement officials at the hearing fielded councilors’ questions. Council President Andrea Campbell underscored the need for openness and asked which technology BPD currently uses. Daley took a very literal approach in his answer by responding that “technology is everywhere,” before launching into an overview of the BPD’s 911, computer-aided dispatch, and records management systems.

Notably, Daley did not mention technologies like stingray cell phone trackers, which the Boston Police Department has been using for years now, absent any public debate or council oversight. Later in the hearing City Councilor for District 1, Lydia Edwards, asked the police to send her office a list of all surveillance technologies, database systems, and information sharing agreements BPD employs. This is exactly the kind of information the public and the council lack, and which is required in order to ensure community control over police surveillance.

Information sharing policies, programs, and technologies came up repeatedly during the hearing, in no small part because the Boston Police Department’s “fusion center,” the BRIC, has come under fire from immigration and civil rights advocates for sharing information about young Boston residents with ICE. BPD representatives at the hearing nonetheless maintained that they keep a tight control on their information.

Daley claimed that the department is “stingy” with its data, but acknowledged that whenever anyone is arrested, BPD sends their fingerprints to the state police, who pass the data on to the FBI. (Daley didn’t explicitly say it, but thanks to a Bush era surveillance program called Secure Communities, the FBI also shares that information with ICE.)

Councilor Michelle Wu inquired about the department’s use of COPLINK, an information sharing and data-mining system in use throughout Massachusetts law enforcement. Surprisingly, Daley reported that the department used it “several years ago” but has since stopped. An ACLU of Massachusetts public records request to the Massachusetts State Police revealed that, as of last year, the Boston Police Department was an active user of the COPLINK system. The records request also revealed that ICE and other federal agents have always-on access to search through records in COPLINK. If Boston has indeed ceased using the COPLINK system, that’s an important thing for residents to know. The confusion around COPLINK and information sharing more generally highlights the need for an ordinance to require transparency and public deliberations about information gathering and sharing.

Informed by community concerns about BPD collaboration with FBI operations targeting Muslims, Council President Campbell pressed the police on information sharing agreements between BPD and the state or federal government. Daley stated that there are no sharing agreements aside from “the regulations for identity information in the arrest process,” a reference to the fact that BPD shares booking data (including fingerprints) with the FBI (again, these prints are also shared with ICE). Campbell pushed back, pointing out that BPD participates in the federal government’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Carabin acknowledged that some BPD officers become FBI task force members and are deputized as federal agents through JTFF operations. The fact that the BPD did not identify its JTTF participation as a mechanism by which the department shares information with federal agencies is yet another reason why we need a strong ordinance to mandate transparency and democratic oversight. Even in a hearing called to highlight these issues, the police department was less than transparent, appearing unable to identify existing programs as surveillance-related even when directly asked about them.

Later in the hearing, the gap between the police department’s perceptions of surveillance and the public’s understanding of the issues became even sharper when BRIC director David Carabin pushed back against community concerns regarding surveillance in Boston. “The amount of times that that is what is going on, surveillance, is slim to none. It’s a misconception,” he said, describing “surveillance” as electronic monitoring conducted pursuant to a warrant, which he said happens very infrequently. It was a revealing comment, suggesting that in law enforcement’s view, dragnet surveillance operations using CCTV and license plate readers don’t constitute surveillance at all. It’s hard to imagine we can meaningfully exert democratic control over police surveillance if we can’t even agree on a definition of the term. Carabin’s comments point to the need for a comprehensive, strong surveillance oversight ordinance to eliminate this confusion.

No such process currently exists. Councilor Wu inquired about any existing policies to guide the purchase and use of new kinds of surveillance technology and asked if the existing policies take into account factors like community input and proposed data retention rules. Daley responded by discussing data retention policies, explaining that data collected through license plate readers and video surveillance is generally erased after 30 days. He did not say the department has a process to guide the ways in which it acquires or develops policies pertaining to surveillance technologies.

Wu followed up by asking about oversight. “Without any formalized policy, what is there to prevent misuse of this technology like using [a drone] over a protest or just over a home?” she asked. Daley referred to an internal audit process, and upon questioning from Councilors Kim Janey and Annissa Essaibi-George, explained that violations of internal policy are reviewed by an internal audit and review group. When Councilor Janey asked how community control could be incorporated into the audit and review process, Daley stated that the technology and data gathering is all guided by BPD policy, which “should be open and open to the public and open for scrutiny.” 

Councilor Lydia Edwards then spoke directly to the heart of the issue that brought so many Boston residents out to City Hall: transparency and community control. Edwards said she wants to create a system in which those who are being watched know how they are being watched, and have some control over how the police conduct their surveillance operations. In that vein, she asked the police representatives two key questions: whether BPD would object to requesting the City Council’s direct approval prior to purchasing, borrowing, or using any additional surveillance equipment or implementing any new surveillance policy, and whether BRIC would object to providing the Council with annual reports detailing the ways and extent to which they conduct surveillance. Gross responded that the department is “perfectly willing to have that discussion.” Edwards clarified, “To come to us and seek out approval?” “Yes,” Gross said. Carabin, the fusion center director, was less committal, and said that transparency reporting “could be possible,” depending on how the policies were drafted.

Councilor Edwards seemed pleased to hear Chief Gross commit to council oversight and transparency, and asked for action immediately. The City Council is set to vote on the Boston Police Department’s budget request on Wednesday June 27. In advance of that vote, Edwards asked the BPD to provide the Council a list of all their databases, their current technology, the technology they hope to use, and avenues of information sharing, including with federal agencies. Gross said he’s willing to have a conversation about those issues and reiterated his support for community input. “We have nothing to hide, these are the words from the commissioner, and we’re looking forward to having that discussion with you.”

But despite all their talk of community policing and their desire to listen to Boston residents, the BPD representatives left after their panel before the community advocates or the public had a chance to speak. That’s a shame because people had a lot to say, and their messages were very different from what the public and the council heard from the police.

Community leaders speak of fear of the police, and issue urgent calls for action

First up from the community advocates was My’Kel McMillen, who recounted how members of his community saw a drone flying over their heads during a cookout in July 2017. As he walked through the neighborhood later that day, he saw two officers testing a drone and realized that the drone his neighbors were talking about must have been the cops’. McMillen contacted Kade Crockford at the ACLU, and a few months later the Boston Globe published an investigation revealing that, earlier that year, the BPD paid $17,500 for three drones.

What happened next was troubling, McMillen recounted. Despite the fact that community members saw BPD officers flying a drone, the City told the press the department’s drones were still in the box, and that the police would get community input before using them. McMillen expressed frustration about this lack of accountability. And he wasn’t alone. During his testimony, McMillen held up 100 petition signatures he had collected from people in his community, showing support for community control over police surveillance. When councilors asked for the papers so they could be admitted into the public record, McMillen said no and explained why: people are fearful of police retaliation and so don’t want their names publicly associated with criticism of the police. He said there were people who were too afraid to sign the petition and many more who expressed trepidation about attending the hearing.

Jamie Kennedy echoed this sentiment when he spoke about his personal experiences with the police, experiences he said that are consistent with those of the youth he works with at the Jamaica Plain based non-profit Bikes Not Bombs. “We believe the police are not protecting and serving, rather they’re intimidating and hurting our youth,” he said. “We have a lot of youth come in from the community and inner cities who feel like prisoners in their own neighborhoods with the level of surveillance and the ease in which police disrespect and cross basic civil boundaries.”

Kade Crockford discussed the need for transparency and clear, definitive policies about BPD’s use of surveillance technology. She explained just how much the community doesn’t know, highlighting the confusion surrounding the BPD’s information sharing with the federal government. For example, last year the ACLU obtained records showing that BPD used a data-mining and intelligence platform called COPLINK to share information with law enforcement agencies statewide. The records obtained by the ACLU showed that BPD was contributing vast quantities of sensitive information about people to the COPLINK system, and that agents from ICE and other federal immigration authorities had access to the system to query its records.

Earlier in the hearing, Superintendent Daley had testified that the department no longer uses COPLINK. But these documents, disclosed by the Massachusetts State Police last year, clearly showed that BPD was using the system. So, which is it? Crockford observed that this kind of confusion is exactly what a community control process seeks to eliminate. We should know what information BPD is collecting—and how, under what circumstances—and how, with whom, and under what circumstances that information will be shared. Right now, we do not. Especially under this bigoted federal administration, this confusion is intolerable.

On the question of the BPD’s possible future use of facial surveillance technology, Crockford warned that its adoption would lead to “the eradication of anonymity and privacy in public.” Face surveillance tech will enable government officials to “rewind in time to see where you were, with whom, and when,” she said. “We cannot go stumbling blindly into that kind of future; we need to be very deliberate.”

Crockford also pushed back against BRIC Director Carabin’s characterization of the BPD’s participation on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Carabin made the partnership seem innocuous, but in fact, federal guidelines allow JTTF members to conduct investigations of people even when they are not suspected of engaging in any criminal activity. Unfortunately, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center’s privacy policy allows for the same type of suspicionless investigation. “It should be very clear to you all on the council and to us as residents of the city exactly what kinds of information BPD is collecting, how it’s doing it, under what legal authorities, and who that information is getting shared with and under what circumstances and so on,” Crockford said. Today, it is not.

Harvard fellow Ben Green echoed the need for change by pointing to Seattle and Oakland’s surveillance ordinances. He urged the Council to ensure that a Boston ordinance apply to all surveillance technology and software, not just physical equipment. Further, Green testified, the ordinance must clearly address how exactly collected surveillance data will be used, who it will be shared with, and how the surveillance technology will evolve. He added that, “This is not a debate about being for or against innovation—it is about facilitating the innovation that city residents want. After all, being a ‘smart city’ means more than just using technology wherever possible—it means being smart enough to accomplish policy goals, with the aid of technology, without violating public expectations or rights. By working to enforce stronger public oversight of surveillance technology, Boston can help ensure that new technology is deployed in accordance with its residents’ values and improves daily life.”

Following the advocates panel, a number of community members rose to give public testimony. Fior Peña, a junior at the O’Bryant High School spoke to her experience as a young immigrant in Boston. “As an immigrant living in a community of color…I have to be worrying about who’s watching me and my info getting leaked to ICE,” she said. “I always see police where I live watching over everyone and sometimes targeting a person of color just for hanging outside with our friends. It is an invasion of our privacy and we don’t like it. Today I am here, sacrificing my study time for final exams to share my testimony. I shouldn’t be worried on who’s watching me.”

Valeria Do Vale, lead organizer with the Student Immigrant Movement, commented on the inequal balance of power between the police and the community. “There is an issue when the cops are the one who feel safe and the community is the ones that don’t feel safe and feel that their rights and civil liberties are threatened,” she said.

Shekia Scott, co-founder of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, testified about her experience working to make sure the Boston Police Department’s body camera policy protected civil rights and civil liberties. “I think that it’s important to note that as long as you have a process, we have to make sure that when it comes down to implementing the actual tool we have to make sure that the policy that outlines the implementation of the tool itself is actually the policy that we care about,” she said. “Because we saw with [the body] camera program, the pilot program, that the policy left out two of the most major accountability actions that the community asked for.”

During the hearing, many people, including law enforcement officials, highlighted that this is only the first part of what must become an ongoing conversation among city leaders, the police, and the public. The urgency of the advocate and community testimony made clear that conversation must be expedited and followed by definitive action.

This blog post was written by Iqra Asghar.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.