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Council approves police surveillance plans

With little time to review policies a pledge to revisit in coming year

Isaiah Thompson

With a deadline looming, Boston City Council members gave reluctant approval to a report detailing the use of various kinds of surveillance technologies by the Boston Police Department (BPD) and other city departments, including Boston Public Schools and the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

The report, and the Council’s vote approving it, mark the body’s first use of new powers established by a city ordinance passed last year and supported by civil liberties and privacy advocates. The ordinance gives the Council the authority to review surveillance technologies and practices utilized by seven city agencies, and to approve or disapprove of their use.

Council members received the first reporting under the new ordinance this August, in the form of more than 800 pages of information — but have held only one hearing on the matter, in November.

At that hearing, as the Banner has previously reported, BPD officials acknowledged that they were unable or unready to provide key pieces of information required by the ordinance, including the location of surveillance devices and whether or which officers had access to data collected.

But Council members acknowledged, some with frustration, that they had come upon a statutory end-of-year deadline to approve or disapprove the various surveillance reports.

While the report was ultimately passed unanimously — although one member, District 6 Councilor Kendra Lara, voted “present,” rather than in the affirmative — several Council members expressed their frustration in moving forward without a more thorough vetting of the 800-page report.

“Right now, the Council is not doing its job … Not only are we not meeting this moment, we are not in compliance with this ordinance,” said Lara prior to the vote. “What is the point of passing an ordinance if ultimately [we’re] not going to take the steps to make sure that we are holding all of the departments implementing these surveillance practices in our neighborhoods and with our constituents accountable?”

Lara vowed that she and her colleagues will revisit the report and further disclosures around surveillance in the coming year.

District 7 Councilor Ricardo Arroyo echoed that point, noting that “the ordinance itself gives us the ability, and to me the responsibility, to call some of these things back and to look at them and to see whether or not they serve the city.”

He said, “I think it behooves us to pass this document as it is today with a understanding that in the next year some of these departments and some of these forms of surveillance we’re tracking will come before this Council in a hearing, or multiple hearings, so we can dig into the benefits to those departments as they see it, and so we can hear from the community about their level of awareness and understanding and how they feel about those surveillance packages.”

Some civil liberties and police reform advocates were less forgiving.

“What they should have done is decide on each one [of the surveillance measures cited in the report] and have read through” the full report, said Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, one of several groups, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, that have been vocal advocates for more transparency around surveillance, especially by police.

But more to the point, Ahmad said, is the need for more public hearings on the report and on ongoing surveillance policies and technologies.

“Councilors should not be making these decisions on their own,” Ahmad said. “They need public input. I think people in Boston are tired of finding out that they’re being surveilled without knowing it.”

At-large Councilor Michael Flaherty chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice, which oversees the surveillance reporting. On the Council floor, he took issue with what he characterized as “aspersions” by his colleagues that hearings had been held up by his committee.

“The advocates … asked for further dates and further delay,” Flaherty said, adding that with the statutory deadline, the Council had two choices: “Do nothing,” or allow review of the report to fall to a city task force without input from the Council.

Flaherty said his committee will continue to hold hearings on surveillance going forward.