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City councilors question police dept. funding

Nationwide demands to defund local police departments have reached Boston

Kenneal Patterson
City councilors question police dept. funding
At-large City Councilor Julia Mejia and daughter Annalise Cooper participate in a demonstration against police violence held at Franklin Park last week. BANNER PHOTO

Nationwide demands to defund local police departments have reached Boston. The Boston City Council is set to decide on June 10 whether or not to approve the $414 million allocated to Boston Police Department (BPD) in the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Last Friday, Councilor Andrea Campbell hosted a hearing to discuss $2.5 million worth of grants that also fund the police department.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we need to evaluate how we are utilizing these dollars,” said Councilor Julia Mejia, adding, “This is an opportunity, and this is our moment in time to really take a moment to reflect— are we doing everything in our power to protect and serve our community?”

The grants the City Council discussed last week represent a tiny fraction of the police department’s approximately $414 million budget, which includes $60 million in overtime spending. Mayor Martin Walsh told reporters that city officials are open to reallocating portions of the department’s budget.

“We are going to look at the police budget, certainly, and reallocate some of it,” he said during an appearance on WCVB-TV.

Neither Walsh nor the council members have committed to a specific dollar amount to cut from the BPD budget. But the council hearing provided a glimpse into the increasingly hardened attitudes local officials and constituents have around policing issues as protests against police brutality in the United States have broken out in cities around the world.

The $1 million Charles Shannon Safety Initiative Grant is administered by the BPD to multiple organizations around the city. Boston Police Department project coordinator DeMon Bills said at the hearing that these grant funds “support the city of Boston’s comprehensive strategy aimed at reducing gun, gang and youth violence in the city by providing services and intervention to at-risk and gang affiliated youth.”

However, only about 65% of the grant goes to community organizations, said Bills.

Nearly $350,000 goes straight to the BPD and overtime pay.

“We fund four different units,” said Bills. “The Youth Violence Strike Force, the Community Policing Unit, the Drug Unit and the Community Outreach Unit.” Money also goes to civilian salaries ($88,000) and the city of Boston administration ($167,000).

Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, said that the grants make certain “criminalized” individuals ask law enforcement officers for resources they desperately need.

She urged the council to “create clear and easy paths for nonprofits, community organizations and institutions to actually receive funding without having to accept these narratives that criminalize them or bloat the BPD budget with additional overtime funding.”

Lena Papagiannis, a BPS teacher who testified at the hearing, agreed. She said that community programs need to be “of, by and for the community.”

“None of this money needs to go through the police,” she said.

Another grant, totaling $850,000, is awarded by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC). BRIC collects crime data, analyzes intelligence and shares information with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Councilors expressed hesitation regarding the grant, since BRIC representative David Carabin was unable to attend the hearing and answer questions.

Councilor Lydia Edwards said that she had no intention of voting on BRIC funding until more information is available.

The BRIC money would support the salaries of six crime data analysts, four of which would work out of BRIC’s real time crime center. Maria Cheevers, director of research and development for BPD, said that the center is currently short-staffed.

Mejia noted BRIC’s gang database, in which residents of color are overrepresented

“An article that came out in 2019 found that Boston’s gang database is 90% black and Hispanic,” she said. “That just blows my mind, in a city where almost half of the city is white alone, somehow 90% of our gang database is black and Hispanic. To me that points to the implicit bias in our system.”

Edwards said, “There needs to be a general statement about BRIC’s role in achieving a more racially equitable police force or country or city.”

Certain advocates who testified at the hearing also questioned BRIC’s accountability.

“We cannot pretend to be a sanctuary city while BRIC is operating and feeding information to the Department of Homeland Security, to the FBI and all sorts of other agencies with no transparency,” said Ahmad.

She said that advocates have been waiting since a 2017 hearing to get an inventory of all the technology, software, hardware and equipment that BPD owns.

Ahmad also questioned what portion of the city budget for the BPD goes to BRIC. The funding that BRIC receives “is not clearly demarcated in BPD’s budget,” she said.

Papagiannis said, “I don’t understand why we should help to fortify a federally funded center that systematically tracks and surveils people in our city.” 

A third grant also raised privacy concerns. Over $30,000 awarded through the Boston Public Health Commission would fund an environmental design model aimed at reducing crime, especially in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. It would also install extra security cameras.

“I really wonder how many cameras we have around this city that feed back to federal law enforcement without any of us knowing, because there is no clear separation between BPD and BRIC,” said Ahmad.

Mejia commented on the large number of constituents who have reached out advocating for police defunding.

“Something I want to be mindful about in this space is how many people have called our office, tweeted, emailed us, sent us Facebook messages, all demanding that we defund the BPD,” she said. She said available funds need to address the city’s systemic racial issues.

Grant funds must be approved by the council before they are spent. However, BPD’s Cheevers noted that they cannot be redirected to anything else.

“We develop these grant strategies and program models in partnership with communities from day one,” she said. Redirecting the funds may cause the grant-makers to take the money away.

Ahmad urged councilors to reduce the $414 million BPD budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a decision which was set to be finalized on Wednesday. She said that $40 million could be cut from overtime spending alone.

“I know this hearing today is just about these grants,” Ahmad said. “But as you can see, people are not going anywhere. We are fired up and we are ready for things to change.”

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