Privacy SOS

How Boston’s new mayor can make our city safer and more free


This morning the City of Boston got a new mayor. We at the ACLU of Massachusetts congratulate Mayor Marty Walsh, and respectfully offer a few ideas about how he can make this already great city even better, particularly regarding relations between the police and the people.

During remarks at his inauguration this morning, Mayor Walsh said that he's committed to "increasing trust and transparency in city government." That's like music to our ears, and we're going to hold him to that promise.

A couple of weeks ago, we shared a brief report with Mayor Walsh’s transition team, outlining some problem areas regarding the city’s public safety operations, and providing concrete recommendations for how to address them. We wanted to make sure that, as he laid the groundwork for his leadership, he had a solid understanding of the police-related civil liberties issues affecting Boston residents. As the ultimate boss of the Boston Police Department, he has a significant amount of power that we hope he’ll marshal to address some serious but eminently surmountable problems.

Among those problems is the lack of transparency at the police department, particularly where surveillance and intelligence are concerned. In our brief report for then Mayor-elect Walsh, we wrote:

Documents and video surveillance tapes obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts in October 2012 revealed that officers assigned to the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) at the Boston Police Department (BPD) were spying on peace groups, such as Veterans for Peace, and retaining dossiers about people engaged in constitutionally protected speech and political activity. The documents, published in a report entitled, “Policing Dissent,” provided the public with its first glimpse into the political surveillance practices of the Boston Police Department.

More recently, a Boston Globe investigation revealed data from more than 68,000 Boston Police Department automated license plate reader scans — a fraction of the total scans the department has performed since 2006 — showing that the Boston Police Department's program violated its own rules for data use and retention. The data also showed that the BPD deployed scanners disproportionately in poor communities of color, including Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan, further undermining community trust in the police.

We then provided five recommendations for his new administration. It should be easy for Mayor Walsh to institute these practical reforms, especially because bringing more transparency to city government is one of his stated goals. We look forward to working with him and the department to ensure that what goes on behind closed doors at the Boston Police Department conforms to our constitution and to the values that make our city great.


    1.    The BPD should cease the routine surveillance and recording of political demonstrations and people engaged in constitutionally-protected political speech and associations.

    2.    Police surveillance should occur only when officers reasonably suspect criminal activity. When officers do reasonably suspect criminal activity by a specific group or person, any surveillance or investigation must relate to the suspected crime.

    3.    The BPD should create an independent and public auditing system to ensure that the department abides by the reasonable suspicion standard and adequately protects civil rights and civil liberties in all of its intelligence operations.

    4.    The Mayor-elect should hold public hearings to review the financial cost-benefit and public safety effectiveness of BPD surveillance programs and technology, including the BRIC.

    5.    The Mayor-elect should join calls for a moratorium on the use of license-plate scanners until legislation is enacted requiring uniform statewide standards for data collection, storage, access and use.

Read the full report here.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.