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Council probes gang database

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO

For years, city councilors, activists and lawyers have pointed out the flaws in the Boston Police Department’s gang database. It’s used to identify and track individuals police have identified as gang-affiliated or gang members.

In a Boston City Council hearing March 9, Councilors Andrea Campbell and Ricardo Arroyo attempted to get the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, the organization that compiles the data, to admit to several reported flaws.

The main claims from database critics are that it features disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino individuals, and that people in the database can neither check their status nor be removed from the database. Activists say being placed in the database increases a person’s chance of arrest and can facilitate deportation.

“There’s also been harm caused when you are erroneously added, you have been deported, or detained or tracked in a way that was unfair and harmful to you as well as your community,” Campbell said.

“There is a culture in our police department to maintain the status quo,” Campbell told the Banner in a phone interview.

That’s how she explains the defense BRIC Director David Carabin brought to the discussion on Tuesday.

According to Carabin, there are 101 active gangs in the database — 124 when including inactive gangs — and 3,383 individuals currently listed. Fewer than 10% of the entries are white people.

Only one person has successfully been removed from the database after petitioning the BPD.

Individuals are added into the database by police officers who conduct field intelligence observation reports, commonly referred to as FIOs. Officers can make such reports while stopping and questioning, or sometimes simply observing, individuals. Being seen in proximity to people police say are in a gang can merit a classification as “gang-affiliated” and earn a person a spot in the database.

Other criteria police use to identify people as gang members include wearing similar items of clothing or the same colors as people police have identified as gang members.

The department’s definition of a gang also allows officers wide latitude: “A group of three or more individuals, whether formal or informal, who has a common name or common identifying signs or colors or symbols or frequent a specific area or location and may claim it as their territory and has members or associates who, individually or collectively engage or have engaged in criminal activity which may involve incidents of targeting rival gang members and/or being targeted by rival gangs.”

Carabin maintains that the database is used and kept with care for the legal system and in the interest of mitigating crime.

“Databases maintained by the BRIC are done so to improve the quality of our analysis that ultimately helps avoid the circulation of arbitrary subjective information and prevent ill-informed decision-making,” he said during the hearing.

Questioned by Arroyo, however, Carabin could not name one instance in which police used information from the database to solve a single murder.

As for sharing with other law enforcement organizations, Carabin says they do share information, but only to further a criminal investigation — and that includes sharing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The information is only shared for official law enforcement purposes … with service provider agencies, under specific terms and conditions, and with formalized legal agreements to reduce the risks associated with traumatic violent behavior,” Carabin said.

The data is reviewed by analysts regularly to determine the relevance over time, and possible removal of entries, he said.

Elizabeth Badger, an immigration attorney, gave testimony about her clients at the hearing, saying that BPD officers have more of an incentive to look at someone in an immigration context if they know them from the gang database.

“My colleagues and I have seen in countless cases … where kids are subject to more surveillance in schools, because they’re in school, accrue more points in the BRIC that lead to their arrest, detention and sometimes deportation,” Badger said.

She acknowledged that BPS has adopted a new information-sharing policy since then, but that doesn’t stop this practice from happening outside of schools.

All of this, Badger said, causes the immigrant community to see BPD as a threat.

“There are at least two analysts whose primary responsibility appears to be gathering information and rumors to send to ICE to help DHS [the U.S. Department of Homeland Security] make allegations in court to support deporting someone,” Badger said.

During questioning, Arroyo read some of the BPD’s FIO reports and expressed his disappointment with the level of description officers use when in the field.

“Your data is only good as your collection methods,” Arroyo said.

The BRIC does not solely use FIOs to determine eligibility, but stopping suspected gang members on the street happens often, resulting in a gang database entry. The descriptions mainly include notes of clothing items, skin tone, where the suspected gang members were approached and if they were searched.

An individual’s level of power in this situation is limited when they’ve been added to the database. The Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) found that a person who asks to know if they are in the gang database may receive that information, except if it is contained in a “criminal intelligence information system,” according to BRIC policy. CPCS says that includes the gang database itself. If someone submits a complaint about the data, suspecting they are in the database, it will be reviewed, but BRIC will not confirm or deny the existence of the record.

Campbell said this dynamic will continue to create problems for many people of color. The most recent data provided by BPD showed that 70% of those in the department’s FIO database were Black.