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City councilors probe BPD surveillance activities

Police officials grilled after drone incident

Saphia Suarez

Last July, My’Kel McMillen witnessed Boston Police officers flying a surveillance drone over his home in the Mildred C. Hailey apartments in Jamaica Plain. McMillen said the officers seemed to be testing the technology. The BPD denied this, but the American Civil Liberties Union found that the department had spent around $17,500 on three drones earlier that year.

McMillen’s discovery, and the police officers’ apparent attempt to hide their activity, prompted activists to press the Boston City Council for a hearing on police surveillance.

The hearing, held last week, was sponsored by Councilors Andrea Campbell, Michelle Wu and Timothy McCarthy. Counselors questioned law enforcement officials including BPD Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross, Superintendent John Daley, and Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) Director David Carabin.

Much of the hearing focused on the BRIC, a collaboration between local and federal law enforcement agencies that was set up in 2005 to prevent terrorist acts and reduce crime. BRIC came under fire last year after it was disclosed that an East Boston High School student, who was erroneously listed as a gang member in an incident report filed with BRIC, was detained by immigration officials for nine months, then deported.

Reading from a statement, Carabin said BRIC safeguards the information in reports it receives and shares with federal authorities.

“The protection of such information is done in accordance with state and federal law, local ordinances, and department policy, and BRIC personnel are all trained accordingly,” he said.

Superintendent Gross said that drone technology could be used in situations with “missing persons with complications, or, for instance felons fleeing into the woods. We could use drone technology and infrared technology to help locate those individuals.”

Throughout the hearing, the police department stressed its commitment to transparency and community feedback.

Councilor Lydia Edwards emphasized the importance of transparency.

“I’m really excited about your partnership in making sure that that we design one [ordinance] to make sure that we again are watching how we’re being watched and we’re very transparent,” she said. “I think the words you used were about transparency and openness, I would also add to that list consent from those who are being watched.”

This comment resonated with the dozens of community members packing the chamber, who nodded in agreement.

While Councilors Wu, Campbell, Edwards and others asked direct questions about surveillance use in the police department, O’Malley asked the officers to describe how they keep Boston safe during major events that take place in Boston. Flaherty asked Gross what he’s hearing from the public, “as an African American male.” Flaherty asked his question after talking about his relationship with Gross and the trust he has in him, the commissioner and the rest of their team.

Edwards suggested her colleagues’ questions and comments were not germane to the substance of the hearing when she had the floor again.

“I just want to be very clear about what I think this hearing is about and what it’s not,” she started. “And we heard a lot of testimony about how much some of my colleagues trust you, or that they trust your perspective and your experience, and this hearing is not about that.”

She continued, “It’s also not about, I feel, victims who are suffering and who naturally would want any kind of resource to make sure that the person who caused them to suffer, or caused the loss of their son, child, whomever, to be apprehended with the best technology — that’s not what this is about today, and it’s not necessarily about the effectiveness of the technology that you have. It’s about when you are going to watch us — [and] how we can watch you.”

Edwards then pointed out that in his answer to her earlier question, Gross had agreed that community members should be able to watch and consent to how they’re being surveilled.

“How soon can we start?” she asked. “We have a budget coming up, we’ll be voting on it. Would you be able to get us a list of all of your technology, all of your databases and all of the ways in which you are currently sharing our information before we vote on that budget?”

Gross said they could have that conversation, and when the crowd seemed displeased with his non-answer, he added “I have to consult the commissioner — yes, that’s a yes.”

Despite the emphasis the BPD officers put on their commitment to community input and feedback, when the time came for the community panel to speak, all three officers left, as did councilors O’Malley and Flaherty.

Kade Crockford of the ACLU noted the departure of the police department members when she spoke on the second panel.

“In the city of Boston, one thing that we see a lot at hearings like this is that the police come and they speak and they talk about how much they care about the community and community’s voices, and then they leave before they have a chance to actually listen to what people in the community have to say, and I just find that to be really troubling.”

She continued by pointing out the misalignments she observed in the officers’ testimony.

When Supt. Daley was asked about Coplink, a nationwide police data-sharing system ICE has used to mine data on undocumented immigrants, he had said that the police department was “running Coplink several years ago. We don’t run it anymore.”

But Crockford said she had found out through a public records request made with the State Police that Boston Police do contribute data to Coplink.

“It’s astonishing to me that we just heard in the middle of this hearing that the Boston police department doesn’t use the Coplink system anymore,” Crockford said.

According to Crockford’s findings, the police department may have been using Coplink as recently as last year, if not still. If the Boston police were participating in Coplink, they would have been sharing information with ICE, which has access to Coplink.

“That’s a real problem for a Trust Act city that has committed not to engage with ICE and CAP and other federal immigration authorities,” Crockford said.

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